Work begins to replace Georgia’s digital voting system

An effort to trash Georgia’s electronic voting machines got underway Wednesday amid disagreements over how to make the state’s elections secure and accurate.

The first meeting of a group that will recommend a replacement voting system showed divides over whether Georgia should use pen-and-paper ballots or touchscreen machines to print ballots.

Brought together by Secretary of State Brian Kemp, the Secure, Accessible & Fair Elections (SAFE) Commission will review options for the state’s next voting system and then make a recommendation to the General Assembly before next year’s legislative session. A new voting system could be in place in time for the 2020 presidential election.

There’s broad consensus that Georgia should buy a voting system with a verifiable paper trail to double-check results, conduct recounts and prevent potential fraud.

But as state lawmakers found earlier this year when they failed to pass a bill for a new voting system, finding agreement on a new multimillion-dollar voting system won’t be easy.

Kemp said the state’s 16-year-old touchscreen voting machines should be phased out and replaced with a system that uses paper for verification.

“I have just as many concerns with paper as I do any other system,” said Kemp, the co-chairman of the commission and a Republican candidate for governor. “That’s why we need to have a system that I think in the future will be as secure as we possibly can.”

Georgia is one of the last five states that relies entirely on electronic voting machines that don’t leave an independent paper backup. Buying a new voting system for the state could cost roughly $30 million to $150 million, said state Rep. Barry Fleming, R-Harlem, a co-chairman of the commission.

Voters urged the commission to pursue hand-marked paper ballots, saying they’re less susceptible to hacking than the alternative. State officials are also considering a type of voting machine that continues to use touchscreens but then prints a paper ballot for verification and tabulation.

“We need a new voting system that we can have faith in. We’re asking for the highest level of protection for our voting data,” Laura Digges, a Cobb County voter, said during public comments to the 18-person commission. “We need hand-marked paper ballots, software independent for every vote cast.”

Cobb County Elections Director Janine Eveler said pre-printed paper ballots would be expensive and unmanageable.

“Pre-printing the ballots is not the most efficient way to go,” Eveler said. “Look at some of the new technology that’s either a blank ballot on demand at the polling place or an electronic ballot marker.”

The SAFE Commission includes election officials, state legislators, political party representatives and voting experts. It will hold public meetings throughout the year before suggesting a voting system and changes in state law to the General Assembly.

Meanwhile, the Secretary of State’s Office will solicit information from election companies about the kinds of technology they offer. That information will be shared with the commission, and then a competitive bid process could begin early next year, after a new secretary of state has been sworn in.

The General Assembly would have to approve funding for a statewide election system.

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