The cost — which has not been defined as of yet — to replace voting machines across the state is considered to be the largest purchase of its type in the nation’s history. Georgia’s considerably closer to that point after the state Senate gave House Bill 316 its approval, 35-21, following three hours of intense debate.

“Our current system is 17 years old, and we now have the opportunity to choose to update our voting machines by using new technology — the technology of today, built upon the experiences of the past,” said state Sen. William Ligon, R-White Oak, who carried the bill in the Senate.

He said the legislation, with the update, brings common-sense reform and straight-forward solutions, including the new touchscreen marked-paper ballot system.

“Touchscreen ballot markers leave absolutely no room for doubt of voter intent, since voters make a clear choice with a touch of a button,” Ligon said. “Reverting back to any other form of voting system — including pencil-marked paper ballots — could easily force our state into a hanging chad situation that Florida experienced in the 2000 election.

“With a pencil-marked ballot, election officials, attorneys and partisan vote reviewers have to interpret stray and accidental pencil marks on improperly completed ballots, meaning that the voter may have their vote counted incorrectly or completely invalidated.”

The bill is favored by the governor and legislative Republican leadership, though generally opposed by Democrats and even some Republicans — notably the conservative group FreedomWorks — because of a number of factors that include possible corruption, undefined cost to the state and localities, problems with auditing and unreliability of the machines themselves. Opponents frequently point to hand-marked paper ballots as the preferred alternative.

“The audit language itself in this bill is extremely weak,” state Sen. Elena Parent, D-Atlanta, said. “It doesn’t require any risk-limiting audits, except for the pilot program, which is in one county. It doesn’t require them after that. So, all this talk about audits — not only can you not even do them with these machines, the bill doesn’t even say we’re going to have them anyway. What a joke. The pre-certification audit isn’t even a risk-limiting audit in this bill — it’s a tabulation audit, and there is a difference. Shame on any of you who have not bothered to ask that question.”

She said that when people go in-depth into the language of the bill, all manner of open questions surface.

“Why on earth would we buy less-secure machines that are opposed by the voters, opposed by national security experts, at risk of being decertified right now in New York, are far more expensive than the hand-marked paper ballots, are possibly going to be decertified by the national election authorities within 2-4 years, when we’re spending, taking out a 20-year bond,” Parent said. “You start saying, ‘Why on earth would we buy these things?’

“I have been baffled, absolutely baffled. This is not a partisan issue — you don’t do voting machines on a party-line vote. This is crazy. And so I’m like, what is going on here? I’ve been given absolutely no good reason why we should buy these things. There’s not one good reason. So therefore, it just reeks of corruption — that we’re prioritizing vendors over voters.”

Senators also questioned part of the bill that allows the secretary of state to become a member of a nongovernmental entity and share voter information with that entity with the intent of making sure the lists are accurate.

State Sen. Jen Jordan, D-Atlanta, brought up her 2015 class-action lawsuit filed when the Secretary of State’s Office, then presided over by current Gov. Brian Kemp, suffered a data breach resulting in the release of information on the state’s voters including their full name, address, date-of-birth and driver’s license number.

“This is what we know, what we know is, the secretary of state takes all of our personal information — social security, date-of-birth, all of that information I was talking about — transfers it over state lines to a database that is then controlled by these systems, (Electronic Registration Information Center) or the (Interstate Voter Registration Crosscheck program),” Jordan said. “We have absolutely no control over that information, and then that information goes to the various state partners. Again, who we have no control over.”

Then there’s the issue that Kemp’s deputy chief of staff, Chuck Harper, remains on state records as a lobbyist for Elections Systems & Software, the preferred vendor at this point, should the bill pass as expected.

The Governor’s Office said Harper’s not renewing his lobbyist registration this year and it will pass into status as inactive or terminated. Also, Kemp’s chief of staff when he was secretary of state — and his present executive counsel — David Dove, went to a called a ES&S conference in Las Vegas in March 2017 when Georgia was in the market, as now, for a statewide voting machine overhaul.

Senate Democratic Leader Steve Henson, D-Stone Mountain, pounded the drum that state law and Senate rules demand a fiscal impact statement accompany this bill. There’s $150 million budgeted, but no certainty as to the final cost. Indeed, Tuesday, Georgia Public Broadcasting obtained unredacted copies of documents sent by potential vendors to the Secretary of State’s Office that were previously unavailable.

State Sen. P.K. Martin IV, R-Lawrenceville, objected to the reasoning behind hand-marked paper ballots, in that it only took a pen to “hack” them, whereas these machines would be safe.

“You know, our current system is in a non-connected environment — it’s not connected to the internet,” Martin said. “The ballot-marking devices proposed will be in that same non-connected environment. … Due to that fact, it would be almost impossible, with technology and the coordination required, to hack these devices — to be able to go in and physically open up devices, to try to gain connectivity to each device. It would be almost impossible to do this when they’re in a non-connected environment.”

In closing out the debate, Ligon said the state took a dramatic step forward with new systems following the 2000 elections, going from 48th in the country in overvotes and undervotes to third. Going back, he said, would be a mistake.

“Yes, there are concerns about the system being hacked, or you don’t know how you voted, but the fact is, and it’s undisputed, the scanner for a touchscreen ballot, which clearly prints out the persons that you voted for is scanned the same way as a ballot for a pen (or) pencil is scanned,” Ligon said. “The same processes are used.”

He added that with the system favored by the state, the state would pick up the bulk of the cost for the machines and the cost to counties would be much less.

Ligon closed with, “Let’s secure our voting for the people of the state of Georgia, and let’s give them a system that’s secure and reliable and that they’ll have the confidence to know that their vote.”

H.B. 316 heads back to the House for concurrence.

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