Controversial Voting Machine Bill Clears Georgia House

While Republicans largely approved of the legislation, Democrats believed the touchscreen system that printed completed ballots would leave the state vulnerable to hacking. The bill now goes to Gov. Brian Kemp for approval.

by Mark Niesse, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution / March 15, 2019
Georgia House of Representatives Chambers Shutterstock/Nagel Photography

(TNS) — Legislation to replace Georgia’s electronic voting machines with a touchscreen-and-paper ballot election system is heading to Gov. Brian Kemp for his signature after winning final approval from state lawmakers Thursday.

The Georgia House’s 101-69 vote, mostly along party lines, concluded a polarized debate over how to protect democracy and ensure accurate election results. Republicans and Democrats fiercely disagreed over whether voters should use computer-printed ballots or paper ballots bubbled in with a pen.

The Republican majority’s decision to go with voting machines and printed ballots comes in time for the system to be in place for next year’s presidential election, when the state’s 7 million registered voters will be eligible to cast their ballots.

The $150 million statewide system that won approval includes the same kind of touchscreens that Georgia voters have been using for the past 17 years. Printers are designed to spit out paper ballots for voters to review and then insert into a scanning machine for tabulation. The state’s current voting machines lack a paper ballot.

Georgia would become the first state in the country to rely entirely on these kinds of voting machines, called ballot-marking devices, for every voter on Election Day. Some jurisdictions in many other states use similar voting systems, often to assist voters with disabilities.

Republicans supported the new voting machines, saying they’re easy to use and provide a paper record to check that vote counts are correct. The devices also include accessibility options, such as adjustable type sizes, for disabled voters.

“A piece of paper is printed showing exactly who they voted for,” said state Rep. Barry Fleming, a Republican from Harlem who sponsored the bill. “You get to see and verify that you voted for the right people.”

Democrats fought the legislation, House Bill 316, saying it would leave Georgia’s elections susceptible to hacking and tampering.

Democrats wanted Georgia to switch to paper ballots bubbled in by pen, saying those ballots would better reflect voters’ intentions. They said printed-out paper ballots include bar codes alongside the text of voters choices, and voters won’t be able to authenticate that the computer count of the bar codes matches the text.

State Rep. Jasmine Clark, a Democrat from Tucker, said paper ballots printed from touchscreens aren’t trustworthy.

“The ballot-marking device adds an extra layer between voter intent and vote tabulation,” Clark said. “There’s no reliable source document to show if the machine is wrong. If there’s an issue, it’s going to affect the whole state.”

It’s not immediately clear when Kemp will sign the bill but he has shown support for it.

When he was secretary of state last year, Kemp created a panel that reviewed voting systems and recommended that the state move to ballot-marking devices. That proposal led to the legislation that passed the General Assembly on Thursday.

“House Bill 316 modernizes Georgia system and ensures our elections remain secure, accessible and fair,” Kemp said in a statement.

After Kemp signs the legislation, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger plans to solicit competitive bids from voting system companies and then test ballot-marking devices during municipal elections in November. The new voting machines would be deployed statewide in time for next year’s presidential primary election.

“I commend the Legislature for taking steps to ensure Georgians have an accurate and accessible election,” Raffensperger said in a statement. “We are looking forward to opening the bid process to begin selecting the next vendor, and we feel certain that the most cost-effective, secure system will be chosen.”

The outcome of the final vote wasn’t in doubt after the bill had previously passed the House last month. The House had to vote on the bill again Thursday because it had been amended in the Senate, which passed the measure Wednesday.

House Majority Leader Jon Burns, a Republican from Newington, said the voting system will provide “the best platform for every Georgian’s vote to be counted and respected.”

He said audits of paper ballots, which will start during the November 2020 presidential election, will ensure election results are accurate.

Democrats said they had doubts about testing a relatively new technology on such a wide scale. About 70 percent of voters in the United States already use paper ballots.

“This system, ballot-marking devices, are vulnerable,” said state Rep. Sam Park, a Democrat from Lawrenceville. “This bill will further undermine the trust and integrity that voters in Georgia have in terms of our elections.”

The fact that Georgia is switching to a system that includes paper ballots is more important than whether voters use printers or pens, said David Becker, the executive director for the Washington-based Center for Election Innovation & Research, a nonprofit that works to make elections more accessible and secure.

He said ballot-marking devices are a significant improvement over Georgia’s current electronic voting system. Georgia is one of just four states that relies entirely on electronic voting machines without a verifiable paper trail.

“You’ll get a human-readable ballot produced by this voting system, and any human being can look at it and confirm their choices,” Becker said. “Georgia voters should be much more confident in the security of the systems and the accuracy of the counts.”

©2019 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.