Voting is very much in the news in Georgia these days, as legislators consider ways to change existing laws and look at a revamping of the voting process; advocates for sweeping changes testify in Congressional hearings and call for federal oversight of the state’s election process; and litigation challenging existing procedures awaits its day in court.
While the debates are interwoven, there are really two distinct issues on the table for resolution. One is how Georgians will vote; the other is who will get to vote.
Let’s address “how” first. Georgia currently uses touchscreen technology that is outdated and does not provide for any sort of paper trail for verification of the accuracy of votes being casts. Most agree the existing machines need to be replaced, for both improved security and guaranteed accuracy. Many support the idea of returning to paper ballots and optical scanners, which was widely used prior to the advent of electronic voting.
A perceived weakness of the touchscreen machines is that they do not provide any method for checking to see if the votes are accurately recorded and properly counted. Once the data is downloaded, there is no way to verify that it is correct. There needs to be.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean we need to abandon modern technology and return to paper ballots completely. Those who advocate doing so conveniently forget all the stories of election improprieties that took place in Georgia in the days of paper ballot voting – ballots that somehow never made it to the scanners for counting, ballots not counted because they were improperly marked, or couldn’t be read, or were marked in duplicate; ballots mishandled because of human error.
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Add to that the logistical problems that come with paper ballots – advance time needed for printing and distribution before and between elections, inability to make changes close to an election, necessity of storing securely quantities of ballots before and after elections, the relatively fragile nature of paper itself, the voluminous multipage ballots necessary in elections with lengthy constitutional amendments (and the need for duplicate versions in cases where bilingual voting is allowed) – and it becomes obvious that in this case abandoning technology may not be the best approach.
Voting on paper ballots is also a much slower process. As a result, more polling places may be needed to avoid unrealistic lines on election day, meaning more poll workers. The counting of paper ballots also takes much longer, meaning even more manpower, and much later election results.
A committee of the state House of Representatives last week approved legislation that would utilize a system that allows for touchscreen voting on digital ballots but then prints a paper ballot for voters to review and scan. The bill still must make its way through the full House and the Senate to become law, and may yet be changed along the way.
We believe it is possible to have a system that takes advantage of the ease of electronic voting and still produces a verifiable paper trail that will satisfy critics concerned about the sanctity of ballots being cast. Yes, we need to modernize the process. Yes, doing so will take millions of dollars. No, returning solely to paper ballots is not the best answer. A hybrid solution will serve the state best, and prove the most efficient expenditure of money in the long run.
As to the issue of “who” gets to vote, many of the questions being raised have to do with the purging of those who register but may go years without voting, and the verification of registration information for those who vote.
The concept of purging the voter rolls is not a new one and has been done in some fashion for many years. But there are changes that can be made to make the process more uniform statewide, and to require more effort be made in notifying those in danger of being taken off the lists and providing avenues for them to remain registered if they so choose. There is nothing nefarious in the concept of removing from voter rolls the names of those registered but who never actually vote, just as a means of keeping the voting list manageable in size. But the process needs to be open and well understood.
The state’s “exact match” law related to the signatures on voting documents needing to match exactly those on registration documents does provide too much potential for abuse. A change to allow a more common sense approach to acceptance that allows election officials some leeway in making judgement calls makes sense.
The call for federal involvement in the conduct of the state’s elections is one we hope will be ignored. For decades, as part of the federal Voting Rights Act, federal approval had to be sought by Georgia and other Southern states for a host of election related issues, from location of polling places to drawing of districts for political representation. That obligation was lifted by the courts in 2013, and there is not sufficient justification for again putting the federal government in charge of what is supposed to be a state function.
Not to be lost in all this debate is the reality of the partisan political divide on the issue. Conservative Republicans want to close every possible loophole to prevent anyone from voting who should not, including requiring the presentation of an ID to vote, with which we agree. Liberal Democrats want everyone who is eligible to vote to be able to do so without challenge, even if it means some who may not be eligible vote as well. Both sides are as concerned with the viability of getting their candidates elected as they are with the philosophy of operating efficient elections.