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Elections law signed, brings reforms, new voting machines to Georgia

ATLANTA, Ga. (WRBL) - Governor Brian Kemp signed House Bill 316 into law among more than 20 bills to hit his desk since the end of the legislative session on April 2, portioning a part of the state budget to purchase a new "ballot marking devices" as well as changing existing election laws that to address certain rules that were a source of contention in the 2018 Georgia state elections.

Issues during the 2018 races fell into a few different categories, including voter suppression, election security, how ballots are counted and used, and election rigging, among others.

The new legislation from HB 316 addresses some of these problems, mainly ballot collection and voter suppression.

How it was

Before the new law was passed, touch screen voting machines were already in use and absentee ballots were still paper, which were scanned by a voting machine or sent in via mail for absentee ballots. Signatures that didn't match up perfectly could be uncounted because of inconsistencies, mismatched identification numbers would disqualify your voter registration, and those who had not voted in three years were removed from the voter registry.

Additionally, voters who were going to be removed from the registry would not have been notified of their removal, and would have to send a form of contact to confirm their active participation. Voting locations were also able to be changed during the 60 day period during a primary election or leading up to a runoff, among other regulations and policies which voting rights advocates and Georgia voters argued amounted to voter suppression.

Another issue that concerned voters and officials was the security of the elections process, mainly regarding cybersecurity for electronic voting machines, as well as their responsiveness and integrity during the voting process.

What will change with the passage of HB 316

Instead of purely using paper ballots, HB 316 changes definitions of the different portions and items used in the voting process.

First, now instead of simple paper ballots, a "ballot marking device," will refer to not just a pen or pencil, but also "an electronic device designed for use in marking paper ballots in a manner that is detected as a vote so cast and the ncounted by ballot scanners."

Instead of a box and paper slips, HB 316 also defines a ballot scanner as "an electronic recording device which receives an elector's ballot and tabulates the votes on the ballot by its own devices; also known as a 'tabulating machine.'"

Essentially, the law now allows electronic devices to be used to vote rather than just filling out a paper ballot.

This is added to by defining a "'direct recording electronic' or 'DRE' voting equipment," as "a computer driven unit for casting and counting votes on which an elector  touches a video screen or a button adjacent to a vdieo screen to cast his or her vote. Such term shall not encompass ballot marking devices or electronic ballot markers."

Finally, signatures on absentee ballots that don't exactly match signatures on file with the state will no longer invalidate the absentee's vote.

New voting devices

The specific split between a DRE and electronic ballot markers is important to the next chagne to hte existing laws, by defining an electronic ballot marker as "an electronic device that does not compute or retain votes," meaning it only makes a printed mark on a ballot, rather than storing the data from the vote itself.

The law also explicitly states that the "electronic technology" will not "interpret ballot selections, communicate such interpretation for elector verification, and print an elector verifiable paper ballot."

Through the new definitions and items added to Title 21 of the Official Code of Georgia Annotated, the state presents the need for new voting devices to fit these changes.

As a result, the law states that "Each polling place in this state utitlizing optical scanning voting systems shall be equipped with at least one electronic ballot marker" that meets the needs spelled out for voters with disabilities.

In addition, HB 316 says that the state will be purchasing new devices across the state for use "in each county, as soon as possible" to implement this law, though it also allows for individual counties to "purchase, lease, or otherwise acquire additional electronic balllot markers and ballot scanners" on its own.

These new devices will print the ballots after voting, which can be checked by individual voters before submission to a scanner, according to Amber Hainds, the Elections Manager from Polk County.

Changes to voter roll purges and voter eligibility

Going forward, in an effort to address the issue of voter suppression through voter roll purging, the state will now increase the amount of time before a voter is removed from the registry from three years of inactivity to five years.

Verifying your identity will now also have changes for voter requirements.

Section 5 is amended, and now states that if the "name, driver's license number, social security number, or date of brith provided by the person registering to vote" doesn't match, they'll be registered to vote but will need to verify their identity to a "county registrar, a deputy county registrar, a poll manager, or a poll worker at or before the time that such applicant requests a ballot for the first time in any federal, state, or local election."

Notifying voters of registry removal

As the voter roll purge times have changed, a new policy put in place by the law will ensure that voters are contacted before they are removed.

The board of registrars is now required to contact voters between 30 to 60 days before their removal to notify voters of their pending removal from the registry. This allows voters who may not have voted due to a variety of reasons a chance to remain listed as active participants during elections.

Voter accessibility

Aside from the changes to voter removal notifications, ballot and voting devices, and the purchase of new voting machines, the law also adds a new requirement to keep polling stations accessible to voters.

Under Section 14, polling stations "shall not be changed on a day in which a primary, election, or runoff is held, or during the 60 day period prior to any general primary or general election or runoff from such primary or election, nor shall a polling place be changed in the 30 day period prior to any special primary or special election runoff," except if there are emergency circumstances and at "the discretion of the superintendent" which would make the polling station "unavailable for use."

The cost for Georgia

Early estimates from the Secure, Accessible and Fair Elections Commission would cost taxpayers millions, based on their report from February 2018.

"The option of lease vs. purchasing also alleviates the need for the State of Georgia to appropriate such a dramatic volume of funds (estimated to be $30M - $100M+) at one time for the purchase of a voting system," according to the report.

Now with the bill signed into law, the budget for 2020 includes bond funding totaling $150 million to cover the purchase of the machines and training, according to lawmakers.

Unanswered questions

While the law does cover the storage of documents that would "endanger the security of any voting system used or being considered for use in this state," the only mention of securing the integrity of the votes themselves are left to be drafted by the State Election Board, with no defined policies yet published to implement cyber security for the new machines and system.

Going forward, state lawmakers are expected to write new rules and regulations to ensure the integrity and safety of elections, per the requirements outlined in the amended law.

*This story was corrected to clarify the use of touch screens in Georgia elections already, and the changes to this system going forward*


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