This year Georgia will likely buy new voting machines for the whole state. The last time we did this was in 2001 – and while the technology has evolved since then, one important factor remains the same: the human part of the equation.
My wife and I recently watched a movie on HBO about the 2000 presidential election controversy down in our neighboring state of Florida. You may recall that on election night it all came down to Florida; whoever won that state would be the next president. On that night, one network would call the state for Al Gore, then change their minds and call it for George W. Bush, and back and forth it went all night. Gore called Bush to concede – only to call back in the early hours of the morning and take it back.
What ensued next was weeks of chaos and court challenges, with both sides calling in fleets of attorneys to do battle over who voters were trying to elect, and what voters meant when they left a hanging chad on the ballot. For over a month, our nation was left without a clear leader and the government idled. Even when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Bush – and even when Bush won every Florida recount – many Americans didn’t agree about the outcome.
But there is one thing that both sides do agree upon to this day: that all the problems began when voters were forced to use paper ballots that left voter intent up for interpretation.
The confusion and uncertainty of the paper ballot process drove Governor Roy Barnes and Secretary of State Cathy Cox – two Democrats – to move Georgia to machine-based ballot markers in 2001. These are the same systems we are still using today and although they work well, they are old and replacement parts can no longer be purchased.
Over the years, it has become clear that making this change was the right choice for Georgia’s voters. The more reliable touchscreen system has eliminated the problems of unclear voter intent, hanging chads, and bubbles penciled in improperly by the voter. The few controversies we have had in Georgia since then have mostly centered around the few elements of the election process where we still use hand-marked paper: with absentee and provisional ballots.
Governor Brian Kemp appointed me to lead a commission last year with the express purpose of studying the safest and smartest option for Georgia’s new voting machines. The commission was made up of Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, and election officials from counties across Georgia. We traveled the state for almost a year to hear from citizens, experts, and local leaders to gather input and study what kind of new voting machines Georgia should purchase next. The commission consensus was a system that kept the successful touchscreen ballot markers our voters are already used to, with a new paper trail component that allows us to easily audit and confirm election outcomes.
In response to this overwhelming feedback, I have introduced a bill in the General Assembly to begin the process of purchasing new voting machines. The bill calls for a ballot-marking device that will print a paper ballot reflecting the voter’s choices after they have made their selections on a touchscreen.
The updated system is a big investment for our state, but it reflects our commitment to making sure Georgia’s elections are safe and secure for years to come. It creates a paper trail that can be audited later to guarantee a precise vote count, and it also allows our voters to double-check their touchscreen selections before casting a ballot – removing the opportunity for human error and ensuring every vote is counted correctly.
Using the new touchscreen-marked paper ballots solves all of the problems associated with hand-marked paper ballots. It’s much like choosing to use a typewriter to send an important letter instead of handwriting it – so that the recipient will understand your message exactly as intended. The new system will guarantee accurate and secure elections in Georgia – so every voter has peace of mind in our electoral outcomes.
Some are suggesting we turn back the clock and use pencil-marked paper ballots – but that brings us back to the same fundamental flaws that led the country into chaos during the 2000 presidential elections in Florida. Let’s learn from the past, build on our success, and leverage the best of both to keep Georgia voting freely and fairly. Ballot-marking devices which combine touchscreens and voter-verified printed ballots are the way to go.
Barry Fleming represents Columbia & McDuffie counties in the Georgia House of Representatives where he is Chairman of the Judiciary Committee. He and his family live in Harlem and his law firm of Fleming Nelson, LLP is located in Evans.