As Georgia moves to replace all of its voting equipment in coming months, it’s a déjà vu moment for the state – and for me. We went through a nearly identical process 18 years ago after the 2000 presidential election exposed the glaring deficiencies of Georgia’s hodge-podge of election systems then in use.
Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger is readying the new equipment for pilot tests in November and a statewide roll-out in March’s presidential preference primary, and he extended me the courtesy of a close-up look at it this week. I was impressed.
Georgia’s new voting system incorporates features of our current system: an easy-to-use check-in station (now on an Apple iPad), and a touch-screen computer that will present the ballot in an easily readable format. The ballot type can be enlarged for weaker eyes, or it can be read to voters in audio mode for independent voting by visually impaired voters. It alerts voters if they skip a race. It runs on a standard Windows 10 operating system that can be regularly updated.
But notably, voters get not just one – but two chances to review their choices on the new system. After reviewing their choices on the touch-screen computer, voters will print out a paper copy of their actual ballot and will again see in regular text the names of every candidate they have selected.
This piece of paper is the actual ballot that will be counted. Beside the names of the candidates chosen by the voter will be a form of bar code that enables faster counting (just like you scan items in a grocery store). However, in the audit process that will follow all elections, county election officials will count the text version of candidate choices on the paper ballots. Those audited numbers will serve as a check against the scanned totals, giving voters a higher level of confidence that the numbers will match in every election.
The secretary of state and State Elections Board are promulgating new rules, which have the force of law, to govern the use of the equipment and the processes for auditing each election. These rules provide the true protection for Georgia elections; no voting system in use anywhere is perfect – but establishing the structure in which the voting machines must be used, protected, tested, stored and maintained provides the real safety mechanisms for the voting system.
Although the current voting system has not been hacked or compromised after more than 18 years of use, it was unquestionably time to upgrade the system. I commend Gov. Brian Kemp and Secretary Raffensperger for making the investment to do that immediately upon taking, with the support of the General Assembly.
In the coming year, voters will benefit from the extra security that comes with a fully auditable paper trail, while the “ballot-marking” touch-screen computer will ensure that ballots are marked correctly, even for voters with disabilities. Voters will double their opportunities to review the accuracy of their ballots. The hand-marked optical scan ballots promoted by some advocates fail completely to offer these features. That’s why every election official who studied voting systems on last year’s SAFE Commission voted for a new touch-screen system like the one now being readied for use.
I’m proud that we led the nation in 2002 to correct the election problems we found in Georgia, and I’m equally pleased that we are preparing to show the nation that accurate and secure voting is still vitally important in our state. Faith in our democracy depends on trust in our elections.
Cathy Cox is dean of Mercer University’s law school, and served as Georgia’s secretary of state from 1999-2007.