Shape of debate set as voting bill moves through Georgia Legislature

By Maggie Lee

Most everyone agrees that the voting process in Georgia needs changes, but voting machines have divided folks under the Gold Dome.

A new bill on its way for a House floor vote in Georgia makes way for “electronic ballot markers.” Electronic ballot markers look about like the touchscreens that Georgians use to vote in their polling places now.

But the difference is the new machines would print out a paper showing the voter’s choices.

A voter would get that printout, check it, and feed it into a tabulating machine in the polling place. The idea is that the paper would make the process auditable — the state could go back after a vote and make sure the computer’s tabulation matches the paper printouts.

The sponsor of House Bill 316 said touchscreens leave no question about a voter’s intent.

“Those paper ballots would be the actual ballot that would be cast and saved — and, a very important point, also saved for an audit,” said state Rep. Barry Fleming, R-Harlem.

But the bill faces opposition from those who aren’t convinced that there’s any way to make a even a part-electronic system safe from trifling, and they’re calling for hand-filled ballots.

Hand-filling a ballot involves marking choices with a pen in some way, maybe by filling in a bubble next to a candidate’s name. Votes would still be tabulated by some kind of scanning machine, but the process would still be auditable — by hand-counting those pieces of paper.

“While election officials may have testified in support of the bill, it’s unequivocally clear that cyber security experts have expressed concern about the ballot marking device itself versus the notion of hand-marked paper ballots, which they endorsed,” said state House Minority Leader Bob Trammell, D-Luthersville.

Election officials from Fulton, Cobb and Richmond counties testified last week that paper-only elections would cause various difficulties, like the huge volume of paper they’d have to print, distribute, pay for and securely store over the weeks of early and Election-Day voting.

Poll workers and folks waiting to vote at DeKalb's Bessie Branham Recreation Center, Nov. 6, 2018. Credit: Britton Edwards

Poll workers and folks waiting to vote at DeKalb’s Bessie Branham Recreation Center, Nov. 6, 2018. Credit: Britton Edwards

On the other hand, there are people like Richard DeMillo and Wenke Lee, both Georgia Tech computer science professors who have testified that hand-marked paper ballots are the most secure option.

Fleming has countered that hand-marking ballots risks voters making stray marks or Xs or checks or scribbles that leave the voter’s intention unclear.

Fleming’s bill comes after a state election year marked by complaints and lawsuits over Georgia’s voting system, and months of meetings by a commission that’s been looking into various voting systems.

Just to name a few:

A federal judge in one case last year said that when it came to the risk of interference with Georgia’s existing voting machines, state election officials had “buried their heads in the sand.”

And Gwinnett and then-Secretary of State Brian Kemp got sued after reporting highlighted that the county was rejecting about 10 in every 100 absentee ballots, much higher than the statewide rate of about two per 100.

A federal judge ended up ordering a halt statewide to the practice of rejecting absentee ballots based on ballot signatures that don’t match signatures on file with the county.

The bill acknowledges some of those problems.

The bill brings a little more uniformity to how counties handle absentee ballots, and how long voters have to straighten out the things that trigger a registration hold.

Lawsuits during the election season came from a range of groups, like the ACLU, Georgia Muslim Voter Project and Asian-Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta, the NAACP and others. Democrats also called foul on Kemp staying in office as the state’s top elections officer during his own run for governor.

There was also the case of former and maybe future state Rep. Dan Gasaway, a Republican from Homer. He’s trying to run for re-election but judges have invalidated two tries — because of local mistakes that allowed enough ineligible people to vote that the results were in doubt. Just two votes separated Chris Erwin and Gasaway in a December vote.

That north Georgia story neatly illustrates a couple of themes. First, mistakes happen every time in a fiddly process run by 159 counties that involves keeping up with thousands of people, where they live, who they are and what races should be on their ballots. Fulton, DeKalb and Dougherty, for example, have all been in the media for giving out incorrect ballots in recent years.

And second, the process gets weak when margins are thin. Most of Georgia’s local and state elections occur without any problems big enough to make a difference. But when things are close, getting those things wrong means it’s possible that that the results don’t correctly show the will of the people.

Kemp has endorsed switching to some new voting system, as have other Republican leaders, meaning chances are pretty good that the majority-GOP state Legislature will approve some bill this year. House Bill 316 is up for a full state House vote on Tuesday, then it goes to the state Senate.

If the bill passes, the secretary of state’s office would take bids from election system vendors and choose one in the coming months. Then if all goes to schedule, the new system would be used in local elections as early as 2019 and would be deployed for the next big state election year, 2020. That’ll be the election year for the U.S. Congress, one Georgia U.S. Senate seat and the entire state Legislature.

And as a metro Atlanta blue wave erodes Republicans’ margins of victory, look for some close races.

Maggie Lee is a freelance reporter who's been covering Georgia and metro Atlanta government and politics since 2008.

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