Georgia Governor Signs Controversial Law to Replace Voting Machines

April 8, 2019 by Dan McCue
Brian Kemp gives the thumbs up as he arrives to cast his vote at the Winterville Train Depot on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018, in Winterville, Ga. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

After weeks of contentious debate in the state legislature, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp last week signed legislation that will replace the state’s electronic voting machines with a new system that produces a back-up paper ballot.

The legislation, House Bill 316, was introduced with Kemp’s support after his narrow, polarizing election victory over Democrat Stacey Abrams last fall, a race in which she accused the former Georgia Secretary of State of being the “architect of voter suppression”.

He and his fellow Republicans in the legislature said the system authorized by the bill — and for which Kemp has allocated $150 million in the current state budget — will both safeguard the integrity of the vote and ensure accurate counting of election results.

The new system includes printers that print out paper ballots for voters to review and then insert into a scanning machine for tabulation.

However, Democrats in the legislature said they feared the new system will be as susceptible to hacking as the voting machines it is replacing. They instead wanted the state to move to straight paper ballots that a voter would “bubble” with a pen.

The simple paper and pen method of voting, they argued, would be a much better and safer indicator of a voter’s intent on Election Day.

Other critics of the new system, which reportedly will be in place for the 2020 election, said they fear it will be prone to jams and other breakdowns, and that local boards of election will be have to pay for frequent and potentially expensive repairs.

An indication that the bill remained controversial was that Kemp signed it last Tuesday without fanfare. In fact, he drew as little attention to it as he could, announcing in a notice on his website that he’d signed it and about 20 other, less controversial measures during the last day of the legislative session.

Stacey Abrams became a star of the Democratic party as a result of her historic race against Kemp and how close she came to winning it. If she had won she would have been the first woman governor in Georgia history.

But the election was plagued by a host of issues including long voter lines, reports of malfunctioning voting machines and high rates of rejected absentee ballots.

In the end, Abrams came up just 54,723 votes short of an outright victory, and only 17,488 votes shy of triggering a runoff election.

Throughout the closely watched vote count, Abrams said she and her team worked “around the clock to make sure that every ballot is counted — because voting is the bedrock and lifeblood of our democracy.”

In the wake of Kemp’s being declared the victor of the race, voting rights activists working with Abrams filed a sweeping federal lawsuit against Georgia election officials, alleging they “grossly mismanaged” the election, depriving Georgia citizens of their “fundamental right to vote.”

“The general election for governor is over, but the citizens and voters of Georgia deserve an election system that they can have confidence in,” Lauren Groh-Wargo, Abrams’ campaign manager and chief executive of Fair Fight Action, said at a news conference announcing the lawsuit.

In a separate lawsuit in federal court, election integrity advocates are asking the court to force the state to switch to hand-marked paper ballots. U.S. District Judge Amy Totenberg is set to hold a scheduling conference on the lawsuit on Wednesday.

Abrams and Fair Fight Action were key players in the effort to oppose the legislation Kemp signed last week.

During the debate in the state legislature, she and other Democrats pointed to testimony by cybersecurity experts who said the new system would leave Georgia’s future elections susceptible to tampering.

And in the last weeks of the legislative session, Fair Fight Action ran an ad on local television calling the then-pending passage of the bill “corruption at its worst.”

Now that the bill has been signed into law one of the biggest questions is who will supply them.

Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger put out a request for vendors in mid-March. It closes on April 23.

A test run of the whatever system is selected will likely take place in municipal elections in November. If the system passes muster, the machines will be rolled out statewide for next year’s presidential primary, the timing of which has still not been set by state officials.

In addition to mandating the use of a new voting system, the bill signed by Kemp also overhauled a number of state election policies, including one that now gives voters more time and notice before their registrations are canceled.

In 2012, while Kemp was secretary of state, approximately 1.4 million Georgia voter registrations were struck from the rolls.

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