All of Hall County’s state representatives voted in favor of electronic ballot-marking machines on Tuesday, a change that lawmakers hope could be in effect in time for 2020 elections.
House Bill 316 passed by a 101-72 vote, mostly along party lines with Republicans in support.
The bill had also gained the support of Hall County’s elections director, Lori Wurtz, who told The Times on Feb. 22 that electronic ballot-marking machines would be the best option to support voters with disabilities by maintaining their ability to cast an unassisted private vote.
The bill has been sent to the Georgia Senate for consideration.
Voters would use the touchscreen machines to cast their votes, and then the machines would print a paper ballot with the options selected. Those paper ballots would then be fed into an optical scanner to be counted.
State Rep. Lee Hawkins, R-Gainesville, said that he supported the bill because electronically marked ballots leave less room for user error and eliminate the problem of stray marks on the ballot.
“There’s no stray pencil marks, there’s no erasures, there’s no X’s or O’s or anything that would confuse and invalidate a ballot,” Hawkins said. “And once it comes out of the machine with a marked ballot, you get to review that ballot and if you see something that you made a mistake on or you left off, you can squander that ballot and go back in and vote again. I like that approach.”
State Rep. Matt Dubnik, R-Gainesville, said keeping touchscreen machines would minimize confusion for voters who are already used to that technology. Also, some voters may have trouble holding a pen or pencil or filling in a small bubble on paper, he said.
“Thanks to adjustable text size and large buttons, touchscreen ballot-markers are best situated to meet the needs of the handicapped and elderly,” Dubnik said Wednesday, noting that printed paper ballots could also be used for audits or recounts.
And State Rep. Emory Dunahoo, R-Gainesville, told The Times Feb. 22 that he also liked how the bill compensated for possible stray marks on a ballot. While the issue had become politicized, he said, legislators had heard multiple perspectives and sat through hours of discussion.
“I don’t think it’s anything about Republican, Democrat, Libertarian,” Dunahoo said. “The people who vote should be heard, but there are rules and regulations that need to apply.
Some machines produce printouts with barcodes or QR codes rather than traditional paper ballots with human-readable text. Those models have received some criticism because a human could not read the barcode itself without text to supplement, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Machines from various vendors operate differently.
State Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, said he would prefer that the machines print a ballot with text that someone could verify, not just a barcode.
“I want it to print out my ballot and be able to see what I voted for, just like it shows up on the screen at the end of the process today,” Miller said.
Hand-marked ballots, Miller said, “would be going back 25 years, not forward.”
Miller said the machines should be long-lasting so the state makes a worthwhile investment of its dollars.
Kim Copeland, chair of the Hall County Democrats, said he is skeptical of the motivations behind the bill. Charles Harper, Gov. Brian Kemp’s deputy chief of staff, lobbied for Elections Systems and Software, a company that makes voting machines, according to state records.
Copeland said he is also concerned by the idea of the machines printing barcodes that people cannot read.
“That barcode could say ‘candidate John Smith’ or it could say, ‘block of cheddar cheese, $2.99.’ I would never know the difference,” Copeland said.
Copeland said that having a printout voters could review with candidates’ names and ballot measures would be the better option.
Hall County currently has about 300 touchscreen machines, but they do not print a paper ballot for voters to review. While the state has set aside $150 million in Kemp’s 2020 budget proposal for the changes, Wurtz said Feb. 22 that the county had not been notified of how much of that funding it would receive.
Switching to electronic ballot-marking machines statewide is estimated to cost about $150 million. While the initial cost estimate for hand-marked ballots was about $30 million, a Georgia Secretary of State’s Office internal analysis found that hand-marked ballots would cost the state about $224 million over the next decade once printing costs were included. Most of those printing costs would fall to counties.
Opponents of the machines argue that hand-marked ballots, which would require voters to select their choices with a pen or pencil, are more secure.
Sara Tindall Ghazal, the voter protection director for the Georgia Democratic Party, said that modern scanners should be able to tell the difference between a stray mark and a vote, and hand-marked paper ballots are just as secure as electronically marked ballots printed from a machine.
“It takes precisely the same level of effort - protecting paper is protecting paper,” Ghazal said in a Feb. 26 Twitter post.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.