Georgia’s new voting equipment, combining touchscreen digital voting and a printed-out paper ballot, amounts not so much to a single type of new voting machine as a set of different machines with which voters will interact.
"It's no longer one machine," said Bulloch County Election Supervisor Patricia Lanier Jones. "It's now a screen and a printer and a ballot box, or I should say the correct name is a polling place scanner."
As of Friday, the Bulloch County Board of Elections and Registration office had just two examples each of the touchscreen and printer setup, called a BMD, for “ballot marking device” and the scanner and ballot box unit, called a PPS, for "polling place scanner."
To supply all of its 16 Election Day precincts, Bulloch County is expected to receive a total of 188 BMD's and 25 PPS's.
The state has planned to put the new equipment into use in all counties for the March 24 presidential primary. In-person early voting for that election begins March 2, so Bulloch and other counties now have less than two months to receive all of the necessary machines, train poll workers and prepare the polling places with appropriate wiring and some new furniture.
Jones had received no word yet from the state or its equipment manufacturer on when the rest of the machines will be delivered. The old machines are supposed to be collected first, she said, and that hasn't happened yet.
Of the two new machines, voters will spend much more time with the BMD, which includes the touchscreen, so the number of these needed corresponds roughly to the number of the old voting machines. One difference, Jones noted, is that the BMD screen will display the choices for only a single office or question at a time instead of multiple ballot items.
When the voter is ready, the BMD will print out the voter's choices as a condensed, readable paper ballot, which also includes a barcode.
Each polling place will need at least one PPS, where the voter inserts the ballot, which is scanned and falls into a locked box. Bulloch's largest precincts will get two of these units, Jones said. The PPS both records a photo-like image of the ballot and counts the encoded votes.
Voters will not get to keep their paper ballot, but it too will be stored away, available if any challenge goes as far as a count of paper ballots.
"You hold it (the printed ballot) in your hand, you see, 'Oh yeah, this is the way I wanted to vote,' and then you feed it into the scanner, and when it scans, it goes into the ballot box," Jones said.
$107 million order
These machines are part of Georgia's $107 million contract with Dominion Voting Systems. The state's previous paperless, touchscreen voting machines, introduced in November 2002 and in use for 17 years, were orginally manufactured by Diebold and most recently maintained by Election Systems & Software.
After the Legislature and the Georgia Secretary of State's Office set the purchase of the new equipment in motion, U.S. District Court Judge Amy Totenberg issued a ruling in August that the old machines must not be used after 2019. So, Georgia's only obvious alternatives to the new machines at this point would be to seek a new court ruling or revert to handmarked paper ballots.
Some local costs
The state is paying for the BMD and PPS units and also for devices called PollPads, used to check-in voters with their identification cards.
But the special ballot paper, costing about 13 or 14 cents a sheet and containing an embedded security code, will be a county expense, Jones said. So will any required furniture. The BMD units, which resemble large touchscreen tablets paired with ordinary office printers, do not have stands like the old machines.
"We're going to have the expense of the ballot paper," Jones said. "We're going to have the expense of whatever this equipment is going to sit on, whether it's a table or we build shelves. That's just something that we're going to have deal with."
Regular paper can be used in the test mode, she noted, but the special paper is required for actual voting.
Of course with the furniture needs yet to be determined, she doesn't have an estimate of the local cost.
Bulloch County's first set of the new machines, including one BMD and one PPS, was delivered before the Nov. 5 city elections. But Jones did not unpack the new setup until after that election day, the last in which the old machines were used, to avoid confusion.
To get acquainted with the new equipment, elections office staff members have informally tried out this single set of machines. A demonstration "ballot" includes questions about the state bird, state flower and Georgia's capital cities before Atlanta.
Jones and two other staff members have gone to formal training in the use of the new system. But before these machines are used in March, all of Bulloch County's approximately 150 poll workers need to be trained.
Each county is supposed to be assigned a Dominion representative to work with local elections officials through this first year. Jones had not received any word about the scheduling of the representative's first visit, or of a visit by someone assigned by the Georgia Secretary of State's Office to check that the electrical wiring of each precinct is sufficient for the new equipment.
She said she had hoped to pair that with a series of visits of her own to check for furniture needs in the precincts, but will probably go ahead with those visits soon on her own.
"I'm going to have to," Jones said. "I've been waiting on them and they haven't got here yet."
'We'll make it work"
The second set of new machines remained in its packaging Thursday. But she plans to set it up soon, probably across the hall from her office in the room used for early voting, to do some voter education in the next few weeks. She will invite civic groups and other local organizations to visit to learn about the new equipment, she said.
"It will be easier for them to come to us than to take all of this to them," she said.
Asked how confident she is that the new machines, once delivered, can be used for the March 24 presidential primary, Jones said, "We'll make it work."
Trial and error
But she also said that she and her staff and all of the poll workers will be novices with the new machines at first. She noted that the presidential primary is a relatively simple election, with just one race with one set of candidates on each party's ballot.
But the county and state general primary May 19 will have larger, more complicated ballots. Then the Nov. 3 general election will bring both a complex ballot and probably also the higher turnout expected for a presidential election final.
"We've got a small election. It's going to be trial-and-error, and we just keep building toward November," Jones said. "That's all we can do."