ATLANTA — Just months after a contentious race for governor, and amid lawsuits and a congressional probe, the Georgia Senate on Wednesday approved a plan calling for the purchase of touchscreen voting machines that print a paper ballot.
It’s a big step toward replacing Georgia’s current outdated voting system, which offers no auditable paper trail. But some say it’s a big step in the wrong direction.
On one side of the debate are Republican lawmakers and county election officials, who say the proposed touchscreen machines, called electronic ballot marking devices, are the easiest to administer and can accommodate all Georgians, including those with disabilities, under one system.
On the other side are Democrats, voting integrity activists and cybersecurity experts, who say the machines are hackable and that a system using hand-marked paper ballots would be cheaper and more secure.
The proposal comes months after the race for governor between Democrat Stacey Abrams and Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, the winner. The election drew national attention and shook voter confidence after it was marred by issues including long voter lines, reports of malfunctioning voting machines, and high rates of rejected absentee ballots.
The bill’s Senate sponsor, Republican Sen. William Ligon of Brunswick, said the proposed machines are superior to hand-marked ballots because they “leave absolutely no room for doubt of voter intent, since voters make a clear choice with the touch of a button.” He said “stray or accidental marks” on hand-marked ballots could cause a ballot to be invalidated.
But Democratic Sen. Elena Parent of Atlanta pushed back on that assertion, saying scanning technology had improved to where that was no longer an issue.
“When you’re dealing with a ballot marking device, it puts the onus on the voter to understand how it works and ensure that it correctly recorded their intent, which is just not the case with a hand-marked paper ballot,” Parent said. She said a hand-marked ballot was itself the best record of voter intent.
The proposal passed the state House last month, largely along partisan lines with Republicans in support. That is a similar result as the Senate’s 35-to-21 vote Wednesday. It now goes back to the House to consider some slight changes made by the Senate.
Hall County senators Butch Miller and John Wilkinson both voted in favor of the bill.
Systems using electronic ballot markers include touchscreen computers where voters make their selections, then print a paper ballot. Under the legislation, voters will have a chance to review a summary of selections on their ballot printout before putting it through a scanner, where votes are tallied. Setups from different vendors vary, but many offer ballot printouts that include text summaries as well as barcodes where voter selections are encoded for tabulation.
Hand-marked paper ballots are simply ballots filled out with pen on paper.
Last week, a U.S. House committee requested a trove of information from Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger as it investigates “recent reports of serious problems with voter registration, voter access and other matters affecting the ability of people in Georgia to exercise their right to vote.” Kemp said the panel, led by Democrats, should “quit playing politics up there.”
A federal lawsuit filed by election security advocates and individual voters that challenges Georgia’s use of the current paperless electronic voting machines is still pending. A letter sent in late February 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.”
The wide-ranging legislation would also tweak the state’s strict standard for verifying voter registrations and clarify when polling places can be closed or moved, measures proposed earlier by Democrats, among other changes.
Lawmakers hope to have some new machines in place in time for testing during municipal elections in November 2019, before having them installed statewide for use in the November 2020 presidential election, which also includes a U.S. Senate race and all of Georgia’s U.S. House seats.