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Elections officials discuss possible change in voting machines
Barbara Luth named new chief registrar, chair of board

A change to voting machines in Georgia is up for consideration by the state legislature and the matter was discussed by Forsyth County election officials this week.

On Tuesday, members of the Forsyth County Board of Voter Registrations and Elections discussed a change to voting machines in the state after a bill passed the Georgia House by a 101-72 vote last week to move the state to new electronic touchscreen voting machines that print a paper ballot.

Systems using electronic ballot markers include touchscreen computers where voters make their selections, then print a paper ballot that’s counted after being scanned. Setups from different vendors vary, but voter selections can either be spelled out in human-readable text, encoded in a barcode or both. Lawmakers hope the machines would be in place by 2020.

Joel Natt, a Republican member of the board, said a portion of the bill deals with “pilot program for internet voting,” which he said was not spelled-out in the legislation. The portion in question would develop a pilot program “for the electronic transmission, receipt, and counting of absentee ballots by electors who are disabled.”

“That is pure internet voting; the starting of it. People claim the Russians hacked our voting, this is Russia hacking our voting or China or anyone else,” Natt said. “As a cybersecurity professional, I can alter an email easier than I can alter these voting machines.”

Natt said unlike many bills that go into effect months after they’re signed or on the new year, the ballot bill would go into effect as soon as it is signed by Gov. Brian Kemp. He said the bill is expected to get to the Senate floor by next week.

Matthew Bender, a Democratic member of the board, said he felt the process was moving too quickly.

“They’re just going too fast,” Bender said. “The whole push to get this in place is just not thought through very well.”

Natt pointed out that since there are 40 days in the legislative session, the bill had to move fast so as to not come back next year, which would push any change to 2021 at the earliest and use the current machines for the 2020 race.

“Any change that they propose in 2020 will have to be stated to take effect in January of 2021 or should there be a federal runoff in 2020, as soon as that is over,” he said. 

Aside from security, one large point of debate is about the costs of each type of system. Both sides agree that hand-marked paper ballots would initially be cheaper.

But supporters of electronic ballot markers insist that, over time, hand-marked paper ballots cost more because of printing costs.

Initial purchase estimates for electronic ballot markers near $150 million, with ongoing operating costs rising from there.

Barbara Luth, the county’s director of voter registrations and election, said having a new machine to read printed ballots would change the process and would “add a new station” for voters to stop at while voting.

Bender said while the process might take longer, it is preferable to going to paper voting.

“What bothers me about this is the drive to get hand-marked paper ballots,” he said. “Those of you who have worked election night here know what kind of problems you run into with hand-marked ballots. If we have to have another line for people who somehow marked their hand-marked ballot, it’s going to be a real struggle.”

The barcodes were also a concern for Bender.

“If they have this ballot-marking device that produces a ballot that has barcodes on it, that’s going to be a serious error,” he said. “Even if the barcodes have nothing to do with what is scanned, there is going to be suspicion out there that those barcodes are rigged and everything.”

He said that could lead to a process of hand-marking paper ballots for elections which would take weeks.

Luth’s new position

Tuesday was the final meeting for Luth as director of voter registrations and elections, a county department.

However, Luth will be still be heavily involved with meetings and the election process as she was recently nominated by a grand jury and selected by Superior Court Judge Jeffery S. Bagley as the county’s new chief registrar and chairwoman of the board of voter registrations and elections, replacing Donald Glover, who had held the position 2010-18.

“I will be sworn in at the April meeting before the meeting,” she said. “As a result of that, I must resign my position as director, which my last day as director will be April 1.”

She said she does not know who will replace her and the job will be posted online.