ATLANTA - The Georgia Senate passed a major bill Wednesday to buy a new statewide voting system that combines touchscreens and paper ballots, putting it one vote away from final legislative approval.
Senators voted along party lines, 35-21, to endorse the $150 million replacement of the state’s current electronic voting machines, which don’t produce a paper ballot. The incoming voting technology, called ballot-marking devices, uses computer printers to make a paper ballot for voters to review before inserting them into scanning machines.
The legislation created an intense three-hour Senate debate over how to best safeguard democracy in Georgia after a heated race for governor last November. Democrat Stacey Abrams, who opposes electronic voting, has alleged that problems with voting machines caused inaccurate counts and long lines, while Republican Brian Kemp has said the state’s voting system conclusively showed he had won.
The bill now returns to the state House for a final vote. If approved in the House, which already passed a previous version of the bill, it would go to Gov. Kemp for his signature. New voting machines could be in place for Georgia’s 7 million registered voters in time for next year’s presidential primary election.
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.
Republican senators supported House Bill 316, saying it will be familiar to voters while providing a way to verify the accuracy of elections by checking electronic results against paper ballots.
“Touchscreen ballot markers leave absolutely no room for doubt about voters’ intent,” said state Sen. William Ligon, a Republican from Brunswick. “This is a secure system.”
Democrats tried to stop the bill, 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-year-old 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 tampering. 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.
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“I’m convinced that these machines will not work,” said state Sen. Gail Davenport, a Democrat from Jonesboro. “We don’t need this type, but we need hand-marked paper ballots to have fair elections in Georgia.”
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.
“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. The new voting machines would be in place statewide in 2020.
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