ATLANTA — Three months after a much-disputed election for Georgia governor, lawmakers have filed a bill to make the state use voting machines that have electronic ballot markers and print a paper ballot.
The House bill, filed Thursday, addresses some aspects of election law criticized during Republican Gov. Brian Kemp's successful race against Democrat Stacey Abrams last year. It tweaks the state's strict standard for verifying voter registration and clarifies when polling places can be closed or moved.
Both issues flared during the race between Kemp and Abrams, who lost her bid to become the first black woman elected governor of any state.
Abrams accused Kemp of using his previous position as the state's chief elections officer to suppress votes, especially from black and minority Georgians. Kemp vehemently denied the claim, said he followed state election law and counter-accused Abrams of advocating for "illegals" to vote.
The voting machine change follows the recommendations of a commission formed by Kemp, but disregards advice from cybersecurity experts and voting integrity activists who say hand-marked paper ballots would be the cheapest and most secure option.
Systems using electronic ballot markers include touchscreen computers where voters make their selections, then print a paper ballot that's counted after being scanned. Under the legislation the paper ballot printout would have to include a human readable list of a voter's selections. Cost estimates approach $150 million for these types of systems, the same amount included in bond funding in Kemp's 2020 budget proposal. Initial costs for hand-marked paper ballots would be closer to $30 million.
Republican Rep. Barry Fleming of Harlem, who authored the bill and co-chaired the commission, said Friday that electronic ballot markers would be more expensive initially but could save money on printing and operating in the long run.
Fleming also said he believes electronic ballot markers capture voter intent better than hand-marked paper.
"If I type you a letter, you're going to be able to read it for sure," Fleming said. "If I hand write it, well you'll probably be able to read it — depends on how badly I mess it up in some areas with my cursive." Fleming said he's concerned that stray marks on hand marked ballots could cause a problem.
Marilyn Marks, executive director of the nonprofit election integrity group Coalition for Good Governance, criticized the proposal in an interview.
Marks said there's no data that entering information on a touchscreen is more accurate, as Fleming suggested. "All you need to do is look at the mistakes people make on an iPhone when they are dialing a number or typing a message to see that touchscreens are not exactly 100 percent accurate."
Marks said that despite the call for human readable lists of a voter's selections to be printed on the paper ballot, there's no evidence that voters would take the time to or were capable of verifying their selections.
"Imagine that you are voting on 50 different things, and then someone hands you a piece of paper and says 'Was this everything on the ballot?'" Marks said.
Marks' group is involved in two ongoing lawsuits challenging the state's use of its current outdated voting machines, which produce no auditable paper trail.
In one of the cases, U.S. District Judge Amy Totenberg ruled in September that state elections officials had "buried their heads in the sand" and warned them not to delay in tackling concerns about the security of the machines. But she declined to force an immediate switch.
The legislation, which could see some amendments, also requires the board of registrars to review any voter registration applications held for failing to pass the state's "exact match" verification process for "data entry error or other fault of the board."
Current state law says information on voter registration forms must precisely match information on file with the Georgia Department of Driver Services or the Social Security Administration. Election officials can place non-matching applications on hold.
An Associated Press analysis in October found that 70 percent of the 53,000 applications then on hold were from black Georgians.
The proposal also says polling places could not be changed or closed 60 days or less before a primary, general election or runoff.
Fleming said those proposals are not a reaction to any criticism Georgia received, but have been in the works as lawmakers look to improve the system.