House panel passes bill to allow inspection of Georgia ballots

A state House committee Friday passed legislation that would make paper ballots publicly available for inspection after an election is certified. (Daniel Varnado/For the AJC)

Credit: Daniel Varnado

Credit: Daniel Varnado

A state House committee Friday passed legislation that would make paper ballots publicly available for inspection after an election is certified. (Daniel Varnado/For the AJC)

A divided state House committee approved a bill Friday that would allow Georgians to inspect paper ballots after an election.

Current law allows Georgians to inspect electronic copies of ballot images to verify that official vote tallies are accurate. But the original paper ballots remain under seal and can be opened only with a judge’s order — a procedure designed to prevent ballots from being tampered with after an election.

House Bill 426 would provide public access to the paper ballots after an election is certified — a move proponents say will increase confidence in elections by allowing citizens to verify the results for themselves.

“Citizen-run elections are an essential element of self-governance,” Rep. Shaw Blackmon, R-Bonaire, the bill’s sponsor, told the House Governmental Affairs Committee on Friday. “Our ballot casting is meant to be in secret, but the counting is not.”

Others fear the proposal will burden local election officials who must safeguard the integrity of the ballots while fulfilling the inspection requests. Anne Gray Herring, a policy analyst with Common Cause Georgia, told the committee the bill could remove “the protection the courts give by keeping them under seal.”

The committee was evenly divided on the bill, but Chairman John LaHood cast the deciding vote in favor of it. The bill now goes to the Rules Committee, which will determine whether it gets a vote by the full House.

HB 426 is the latest in a slew of bills that indicate many Republicans in the General Assembly remain suspicious of elections more than two years after then-President Donald Trump claimed the 2020 presidential election was rife with fraud.

Numerous state and federal investigations found no evidence to support various fraud allegations, and a hand recount of every ballot found isolated problems but confirmed Democrat Joe Biden’s victory.

Two years ago, Republican lawmakers made sweeping changes to Georgia election law in response to the fraud claims. And they continue to press for changes.

On Thursday the Georgia Senate voted to ban donations to county election offices, citing concerns about the influence of outside organizations such as the Center for Tech and Civic Life, which was funded by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

Another pending bill would expand the ability of Georgia residents to challenge the eligibility of other voters and ban the use of absentee ballot drop boxes.

The ability to inspect ballots has also been hotly debated. Some states already treat ballots as public records subject to disclosure. And when the idea surfaced in Georgia last year, it initially had bipartisan support.

But objections surfaced quickly. Opponents worried that making the ballots public would result in endless “audits” demanded by losing candidates who refused to accept election results. And they worried about the financial and administrative burden inspections could impose on local election offices.

Janelle Clodfelter of Duluth told the committee Friday that such concerns are outweighed by the need to assure voters that election results are accurate.

“In no case ever should the amount of work required for the public to have confidence in their elections be considered,” she said. “I don’t care how much work it takes.”