Georgia Senate backs new electronic voting machines

This May 22, 2018 photo shows a voter access card inserted in a voting reader during voting in the Georgia primary in Kennesaw, Ga. Georgia’s outdated election system has drawn criticism from cybersecurity experts and voting integrity advocates, and now a commission tasked with examining potential replacements is preparing to make recommendations to lawmakers. (AP Photo Mike Stewart)

Just months after a contentious race for Georgia governor, and amid several election-related lawsuits and a probe by U.S. House Democrats, 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.

It's a big step toward replacing Georgia's current outdated voting system, which offers no auditable paper trail.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.

On one side, Republican lawmakers and county election officials 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, Democrats, voting integrity activists and cybersecurity experts say the machines are hackable and that a system using hand-marked paper ballots would be cheaper and more secure.

Debate has been passionate, bordering on raucous in committee hearings, the two legislative chambers and, perhaps most vociferously, on Twitter.

The proposal comes months after Republican Brian Kemp, then the secretary of state, defeated Democrat Stacey Abrams in the governor's race. The election drew national attention and shook voter confidence after it was marred by issues including long voter lines, reports of malfunctioning voting machines and high rates of rejected absentee ballots.

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's 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 is the best record of voter intent.

While many states use these types of machines in places, often to assist disabled voters, Georgia would be the first to make them the primary voting method statewide.

Democrats tried several times to stop or delay the vote, but were overruled by Republican leadership and the Senate GOP majority.

The proposal passed the state House last month, largely along partisan lines, with Republicans in support. That's similar to the Senate's 35-to-21 vote Wednesday. It now goes back to the House to consider some slight changes made by the Senate.

Systems using electronic ballot markers include touchscreen computers, where voters make their selections and then print a paper ballot. 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.

One of the biggest points of contention is the lack of financial information offered in support of the bill. Bond funding, or borrowing, totaling $150 million has been included in the 2020 budget proposal, but the bill does not include a fiscal note — a report on the bill's estimated financial impact.

"We are totally disregarding state law and Senate rules as far as the need for a fiscal note, there is no doubt," said Senate Minority Leader Steve Henson, a Democrat from Stone Mountain. Henson moved to have the bill ruled "out of order" because it lacked a fiscal note, but was overruled by Republican Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan.

Last week, a U.S. House committee requested a trove of information from Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger as it investigates "recent reports of serious problems with voter registration, voter access and other matters affecting the ability of people in Georgia to exercise their right to vote."

Those alleged problems surfaced when Kemp was Georgia's chief election official, supervising the election in which he was running for governor.

Kemp said the panel, led by Democrats, should "quit playing politics up there."

A federal lawsuit that challenges Georgia's use of the current paperless electronic voting machines, filed by election security advocates and individual voters, is still pending. Bruce Brown, a lawyer representing the plaintiffs, wrote to lawyers for the state in late February, saying the electronic ballot-marking machines authorized by the bill "will not provide secure or auditable elections or resolve the issues raised in the litigation."

The wide-ranging legislation would also tweak Georgia's strict standard for verifying voter registrations and clarify when polling places can be closed or moved, measures proposed earlier by Democrats.

Lawmakers hope to have some new machines in place in time for testing during municipal elections in November 2019, before having them installed statewide for use in the November 2020 presidential election, which also includes a U.S. Senate race and all of Georgia's U.S. House seats.

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