If you keep up with state politics and the happenings under the Gold Dome, you’ll know that one issue has been looming large over the session so far: the debate over a voting bill (House Bill 316) that just cleared the Georgia House of Representatives last week and, at the time of this writing, is actively moving through the Georgia Senate Committee on Ethics and may have already made it to the Senate floor by the time this article is published.
There are many uncontroversial and welcome changes in this bill, such as requiring Georgia to join the nationwide Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC) that would help Georgia election officials communicate with other states and remove voters from the rolls here when they move and register in other states, and creating a mechanism by which absentee voters can be contacted when there is a problem with their mail-in ballot and allowing them to correct it (currently mail-in voters are not told if their ballot is spoiled and have no way to resolve such a problem). These are much-needed improvements to our voting laws.
There is, however, a controversial provision in HB 316 that has many lawmakers, voters and cybersecurity experts very worried. The bill calls for the procurement of BMDs (“Ballot Marking Devices”) to replace Georgia’s outdated DREs (Direct Recording Electronic) voting machines. For many years there has been a concern that the DREs leave no way to trace and audit votes in order to determine voter intent and correct issues. There is no paper trail. HB 316 seeks to resolve this problem with the BMDs, digital display devices very similar to DREs with one big exception: When the voter completes their ballot on the digital BMD, it will then print out a paper ballot that has digitally marked the voters preferences, and that paper will be the ballot that is actually cast by the voter and fed into a tabulation machine. These paper ballots will now serve as a paper trail for audits, recounts and other such problems, but some oppose BMDs for good reasons. There is a lot of misinformation about why this is, and about the drawbacks of Hand-Marked Paper Ballots that these opponents of HB 316 advocate for.
There have been two main criticisms of hand-marked paper ballots from BMD supporters. I want to dispel those first. First, they claim all sorts of problems that could be caused by “stray marks.” This just isn’t a problem with modern scanning technology. The machines can usually suss it out, and if they can’t there is immediate opportunity for the voter to be told exactly what the issue was and allow them to correct it with a fresh ballot on the spot. This would allow a very similar procedure that the bill puts in place for mail-in voters, except the problem can be resolved immediately at the polling place rather than through the mail.
The second problem they cite is the cost and management of all the different ballots. A lot of folks are concerned with how many different ballots will need to be printed and transported for elections. Some people seem to think that these have to be preprinted in sufficient numbers to account for every possible voter, meaning millions of extra ballots, and added confusion for poll workers in making sure voters receive and cast the right ballot (especially in split precincts). But this isn’t how it works. Ballot-on-demand systems allow printing of ballots one at a time for voters, a computer system much like the current system, except instead of imprinting the information on the card that is inserted into the DRE, it prints the appropriate ballot for the voter.
So, with those resolved, I want to address the main issue that hand-marked paper ballot supporters have with the DMB system. That is the great possibility that such a system will use a bar code to tabulate and count votes. While HB 316 does state, as the bill’s author likes to point out, that the paper ballot is the legal “ballot of record,” it does not indicate what part of that ballot is the legal record. A paper ballot with a bar code has the ballot recorded twice: once in plain English with marks indicating who the voter voted for and again encoded in a bar code. In this case, the bar code is what the tabulation machine would read to count your vote. This means that you cannot verify what the machine actually counted. The voter cannot catch errors in the bar code because we cannot read bar codes, only in the regular text that the machine is not reading, making the bar code system untraceable and unaccountable: it is no better than what we have now. Many have tried to win a compromise by urging lawmakers to amend HB 316 to say that there will be no bar codes on the BMD-printed ballots, but BMD supporters have said very few BMD vendors, who the state would buy these machines from, provide BMDs without bar codes. This means the answer is simple: don’t use BMDs, use hand-marked paper ballots.
The last issue I want to address is cost. If we use BMDs, we will have to buy one to replace each DRE machine Georgia currently has. This will cost tens of millions of dollars and leave counties with the same problem they have now in storing and transporting large machines, as well as ongoing software updates and hardware maintenance that will cost the state and local boards of elections untold millions over the years. A ballot-on-demand system for hand-marked paper ballots, however, avoids the need to store, transport and maintain so many clunky machines. Papers, pens (no one uses pencils on ballots), printers and tabulators are much easier to transport and maintain than complicated BMDs.
Many lawmakers want us to buy millions of dollars worth of expensive, complicated machines that we can’t actually verify our votes on, but common sense tells us that the most secure, most fiscally responsible solution is to adopt a hand-marked paper ballot system along with the 21 other states that use such a system with great efficiency. In fact, another bill would allow us to do just that. It’s Senate Bill 220, but so far we have been told that SB 220 will not be given a hearing at all. I’d urge our lawmakers to use their common sense and support the system backed by voters, cybersecurity experts and fiscal conservatives across the nation, to pass SB 220 and support hand-marked paper ballots. I’d encourage you to call and write your state lawmakers in the House and Senate to tell them you expect them to use their common sense, too.