ATLANTA — Voters in Georgia could soon get new electronic touchscreen voting machines that print a paper ballot under legislation approved by a House subcommittee Thursday.
The nearly seven hours of testimony leading up to the Feb. 21 vote was at times raucous, with a packed room of citizens and activists often cheering or hissing at speakers, and the chairman stopping proceedings several times to quiet the crowd.
The proposal comes just three months after a highly contentious race for Georgia governor between Democrat Stacey Abrams and Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, the victor. That election was marred by several issues that drew national attention and shook voter confidence, including long lines, reports of malfunctioning voting machines and high rates of absentee ballots rejected.
The bill's author, Republican state Rep. Barry Fleming of Harlem, said he believed that electronic ballot markers better captured voter intent, citing the possibility of stray marks throwing off tabulation of hand-marked paper ballots. Fleming also said electronic ballot markers are the only real way to accommodate all Georgians, including disabled voters, with one system.
But cybersecurity experts, voting integrity activists and some concerned citizens favor hand-marked paper ballots.
Systems using electronic ballot markers include touchscreen computers where voters make their selections, then print a paper ballot that's counted after being scanned. Setups from different vendors vary, but voter selections can either be spelled out in human-readable form, encoded in a barcode or both.
Hand-marked paper ballots are simply ballots that are filled out by hand with pen on paper.
Initial cost estimates approach $150 million for electronic ballot markers, the same amount included in bond funding in Kemp's 2020 budget proposal. Initial costs for hand-marked paper ballots would be closer to $30 million.
Georgia Tech computing professor Richard DeMillo testified Wednesday that hand-marked paper ballots were the most secure option in terms of cybersecurity.
DeMillo, who along with 23 other cybersecurity experts from across the country sent a letter to lawmakers urging for hand-marked paper ballots in January, also disputed Fleming's claim that electronic ballot markers better capture voter intent.
"What we're concerned with is that some unobservable piece of technology will get between the formation of an intention in the voter's mind and the indelible transfer of that intention to a piece of paper. That is where the hack occurs," DeMillo said. "A hand marked paper ballot imposes no intermediate technology. What you see is literally the best evidence of voter intent."
Election officials from Fulton and Cobb counties favor electronic ballot markers.
Fulton County board of elections director Richard Barron and Cobb County board of elections director Janine Eveler said Tuesday that electronic ballot markers would be the easiest and most cost effective system for counties to administer, citing concerns about the ongoing printing and storage costs of a hand-marked paper ballot system.
Other projections presented by advocates of hand-marked paper ballots, including one estimate presented by former libertarian candidate for Georgia secretary of state Smythe DuVal, suggest that hand-marked paper ballots would actually save counties money in terms of ongoing operating costs.
The legislation would also tweak the state's strict standard for verifying voter registration and clarify when polling places can be closed or moved, but critics say those changes are largely superficial and don't address underlying flaws in the system.
Fulton County voter Stacey Hopkins said she liked some of the proposed changes in the legislation "except for the machines."
Hopkins said that people had lost trust in the election system and public officials who ran it.
A federal lawsuit filed by election security advocates and individual voters that challenges Georgia's use of paperless electronic voting machines remains pending. A letter sent Monday by Bruce Brown, a lawyer representing the plaintiffs, to lawyers for the state says the electronic ballot-marking machines authorized by the bill "will not provide secure or auditable elections or resolve the issues raised in the litigation."
House minority leader Bob Trammell, a Luthersville Democrat, tried several times to enter amendments to the Republican drafted bill.
One that was voted down stipulated that scanners tabulate only human readable marks, meaning a voter's selections couldn't be encoded in a barcode.
Republican Rep. Scot Turner of Holly Springs at times asked questions that seemed favorable to the legislation and then asked ones that seemed to push back against it.
Just before the vote, Turner asked to table the bill in order to give legislators more time to digest it. That request was voted down and the bill was approved.
It now moves to the full House Governmental Affairs committee for consideration, where it could see further amendments.
Associated Press writer Kate Brumback contributed from Atlanta.