The state Senate on Wednesday approved a House plan calling for the statewide purchase of new electronic touchscreen voting machines that print a paper ballot.
The vote, along party lines, comes just months after a highly contentious race for Georgia governor, and amid several lawsuits challenging the state’s handling of elections and a probe by U.S. House Democrats,
It’s a big step toward replacing Georgia’s current outdated voting system, which offers no auditable paper trail.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.
All four of Floyd County’s legislative delegates backed House Bill 316. Reps. Katie Dempsey, R-Rome; Eddie Lumsden, R-Armuchee; and Mitchell Scoggins, R-Cartersville, voted for the original House version. Sen. Chuck Hufstetler, R-Rome, voted Wednesday for the amended version that came out of a Senate committee.
A conference committee will be appointed to iron out the differences between the two versions and Gov. Brian Kemp is expected to sign it into law.
But Robert Brady, Floyd County’s chief elections clerk, said he’s not convinced the new system will be ready to use in the 2020 elections. Brady, a member of the Georgia Elections Officials Association who’s been involved in the testing and discussions, said there’s a lot to get done in a year.
“First they have to pick a system,” he told the county’s board of elections members Tuesday. “There are nine official — seven real — contenders and they haven’t decided which one to buy.”
After the machines are chosen, ordered and delivered, elections officials will have to be trained on the new system.
“The state will pay for the bulk of this,” Brady told his board. “They have about $180 million allocated ... But it appears the counties will get stuck with the training for deputies. This is some of the turmoil.”
Republican lawmakers and county election officials, including Brady, say the proposed touchscreen machines, called electronic ballot marking devices, are the easiest to administer and can accommodate all Georgians, including those with disabilities.
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 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.
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.
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.”