Vot­ing ma­chines clear hur­dle de­spite dis­sent

$150 mil­lion over­haul of sys­tem nears fi­nal OK af­ter Se­nate ap­proval.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution - - FRONT PAGE - By Mark Niesse [email protected]

A far-reach­ing bill to change how Ge­or­gia’s 7 mil­lion reg­is­tered vot­ers cast their bal­lots is on the verge of clear­ing the Ge­or­gia Gen­eral Assem­bly af­ter the state Se­nate voted Wed­nes­day for a new touch­screen-and-pa­per vot­ing sys­tem, de­spite ob­jec­tions that it wouldn’t be any more se­cure from elec­tion tam­per­ing than what’s cur­rently in use.

The Se­nate’s 35-21 party-line vote sets up the $150 mil­lion elec­tion over­haul bill for fi­nal pas­sage within days. The leg­is­la­tion is now ready for a fi­nal vote in the state House, which al­ready passed a pre­vi­ous ver­sion of the bill. It would then head to Repub­li­can Gov. Brian Kemp for his sig­na­ture.

Dur­ing a three-hour de­bate, Repub­li­can se­na­tors en­dorsed the in­com­ing vot­ing tech­nol­ogy, which uses com­puter print­ers to make pa­per bal­lots for vot­ers to re­view be­fore in­sert­ing them into scan­ning ma­chines. The state’s cur­rent elec­tronic vot­ing ma­chines don’t pro­duce a pa­per bal­lot.

Democrats tried to stop the leg­is­la­tion, House Bill 316, call­ing it an ex­pen­sive switch to a new vot­ing method that will be just as vul­ner­a­ble to hack­ing and com­puter er­rors as the state’s cur­rent 17-yearold di­rect-record­ing elec­tronic vot­ing ma­chines. They want pa­per bal­lots bub­bled in by pen, say­ing they would cre­ate a vot­ing record that’s less sus­cep­ti­ble to med­dling.

The par­ti­san di­vide over how to best safe­guard democ­racy in Ge­or­gia comes af­ter Novem­ber’s heated race for gov­er­nor. Demo­crat Stacey Abrams, who op­poses elec­tronic vot­ing, al­leged that wide­spread prob­lems with vot­ing ma­chines caused in­ac­cu­rate counts, while Kemp said the state’s vot­ing sys­tem con­clu­sively showed he won.

Mem­bers of both po­lit­i­cal par­ties agreed on one thing: Ge­or­gia should switch to a vot­ing sys­tem that in­cludes a pa­per bal­lot to check elec­tronic vote counts. Ge­or­gia is one of just four states that re­lies en­tirely on elec­tronic vot­ing ma­chines with­out a ver­i­fi­able pa­per trail, along with Delaware, Louisiana and South Carolina.

Repub­li­can state Sen. Wil­liam Ligon said the new vot­ing ma­chines, called bal­lot-mark­ing devices, will be fa­mil­iar to vot­ers while pro­vid­ing a way to ver­ify the ac­cu­racy of elec­tions by check­ing elec­tronic re­sults against pa­per bal­lots. The new vot­ing sys­tem would be put into place statewide in time for the 2020 pres­i­den­tial pri­mary elec­tion.

“Touch­screen bal­lot mark­ers leave ab­so­lutely no room for doubt of vot­ers in­tent since vot­ers make a clear choice with a touch of a but­ton,” said Ligon, who rep­re­sents the Brunswick area.

Ge­or­gia would be­come the first state in the coun­try to rely en­tirely on bal­lot-mark­ing devices for ev­ery voter on Elec­tion Day. Some ju­ris­dic­tions in 24 states use sim­i­lar vot­ing sys­tems, of­ten to as­sist vot­ers with dis­abil­i­ties.

Democrats said the switch to bal­lot-mark­ing devices is a waste of tax­payer money that will ben­e­fit well-con­nected vot­ing com­pa­nies at the ex­pense of vot­ers. They pointed out that Kemp hired a lob­by­ist for vot­ing com­pany ES&S, for­mer state Rep. Chuck Harper, as his deputy chief of staff.

And they said it was sus­pi­cious that vot­ing com­pa­nies’ es­ti­mates for the cost of bal­lot-mark­ing devices, roughly $150 mil­lion to $200 mil­lion plus an­nual fees and ad­di­tional equip­ment costs, didn’t come to light from the Sec­re­tary of State’s Of­fice un­til Tues­day. When Kemp was sec­re­tary of state last year, his of­fice re­fused to re­lease the com­pa­nies’ pric­ing in­for­ma­tion.

“We still need the peo­ple of Ge­or­gia to be­lieve in the process, and right now they are un­con­vinced,” said state Sen. Elena Par­ent, a Demo­crat from At­lanta. “It’s risky to forge ahead to a place where there are dozens of unan­swered ques­tions.”

A key dis­agree­ment was over whether pa­per bal­lots printed by a ma­chine or pa­per bal­lots filled out by hand are more trust­wor­thy.

Repub­li­can Se­nate Rules Chair­man Jeff Mullis said he fears pa­per bal­lots com­pleted with a pen could be used to ma­nip­u­late elec­tion re­sults. He sus­pected fraud oc­curred dur­ing his cam­paign for of­fice in 1998, when ini­tial re­sults showed he had won by 23 votes but an ad­di­tional 151 pa­per bal­lots ap­peared dur­ing a re­count, hand­ing the elec­tion to his op­po­nent.

“Pa­per bal­lots are a way to fraud an elec­tion. I for one will not stand for that,” said Mullis, who rep­re­sents the Chicka­mauga area. “The bal­lot process should be the most se­cure place in our vot­ing struc­ture in Amer­ica.”

But Demo­cratic Sen. Ed Har­bi­son said tech­nol­ogy-based vot­ing sys­tems are flawed be­cause they could be hacked.

“The most se­cure sys­tem is to re­turn to the fu­ture, and that is hand-marked pa­per bal­lots read by an op­ti­cal scan­ner,” said Har­bi­son, who rep­re­sents the Colum­bus area.”

Sev­eral vot­ers demon­strated against the leg­is­la­tion out­side the Ge­or­gia Capi­tol, car­ry­ing mon­ey­bags and signs say­ing the new vot­ing sys­tem “blows up GA bud­get.” They said vot­ing by hand would be less ex­pen­sive.

They’re also con­cerned that along with the printed text of vot­ers’ choices, pa­per bal­lots would in­clude com­puter-read­able bar codes that hu­mans can’t au­then­ti­cate.

“We don’t know who is go­ing to take over if we have in­se­cure vot­ing,” said Liz Throop of DeKalb County. “We don’t want to cede power to the best hack­ers.”

The leg­is­la­tion goes far be­yond vot­ing ma­chines, call­ing for many other broad changes in Ge­or­gia elec­tions.

Elec­tion re­sults would be au­dited start­ing with the Novem­ber 2020 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. In­ac­tive vot­ers’ regis­tra­tions couldn’t be can­celed for at least eight years. Polling places couldn’t be changed in the 60 days be­fore a gen­eral or pri­mary elec­tion.

If the leg­is­la­tion be­comes law, Sec­re­tary of State Brad Raf­fensperger will so­licit com­pet­i­tive bids from vot­ing sys­tem com­pa­nies and then test bal­lot-mark­ing devices dur­ing mu­nic­i­pal elec­tions in Novem­ber.

BOB ANDRES PHO­TOS / [email protected]

Sen. Wil­liam Ligon (right), R-Brunswick, is con­grat­u­lated by Rep. Barry Flem­ing, R-Har­lem, af­ter the bill passes. Flem­ming spon­sored the bill in the House and Ligon car­ried it in the Se­nate.

State Sen. Elena Par­ent, D-At­lanta, spoke against the new vot­ing sys­tem Wed­nes­day. “We still need the peo­ple of Ge­or­gia to be­lieve in the process, and right now they are un­con­vinced,” she said.

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