Paper Ballots Focus of Latest Election Reform Push
In state news from the Capitol News Beat Service, state legislators continue to look at election reform.
Five years ago, the General Assembly’s Republican majorities passed legislation providing for a paper backup to electronic ballots, a move aimed at giving Georgians more confidence their votes are being counted correctly.
But legislative leaders aren’t content with that election reform measure. This year, they’re pushing a series of bills aimed largely at paper ballots, responding to election watchdog groups clamoring for more tools to ensure accurate outcomes.
“It will bring more confidence,” state Rep. Steve Tarvin, R-Chickamauga, said on the House floor on Jan. 31. “It’s something we need to restore.”
The 2024 crop of election bills include:
Senate Bill 89 and House Bill 975, which would require the use of the text portion of paper ballots in tabulating votes rather than QR codes.
House Bill 974, would require Georgia’s Secretary of State to develop and implement a statewide system allowing members of the voting public to scan paper ballots.
House Bill 976 would require a “visible security device” in the form of a watermark on paper ballots.
House Bill 977 would expand the number of races subject to “risk-limiting” audits.
The QR codes bill already has cleared the Senate Ethics Committee but remains pending before the House Governmental Affairs Committee. Republican lawmakers have cited numerous complaints from constituents about the use of QR codes.
There’s been a lot of doubt surrounding the QR code, voters questioning whether the QR code is interpreting their vote accurately,” said Rep. John LaHood, R-Valdosta, chairman of the House Governmental Affairs Committee. “Having the actual text they can see and interpret themselves … is the right correction for us to go in.”
Senate Ethics Committee Chairman Max Burns, R-Sylvania, said the Dominion touch-screen voting system the state uses is capable of allowing the text portion of paper ballots to tabulate votes instead of the QR code.
“We’re going to leave the details and technical requirements up to the secretary of state,” he said.
But those technical requirements are giving the House committee pause. The panel has yet to act on the House version of the legislation amid questions surrounding the cost and who’s going to pay for it.
“This could require a heavy purchase of equipment,” LaHood said.
“I’m opposed to any unfunded mandates on counties until we have more information,” added Rep. Shea Roberts, D-Atlanta.
The House hasn’t hesitated on the watermark bill, the only one of the four measures that has cleared a legislative chamber. The House passed House Bill 976 Jan. 31 with only one “no” vote.
LaHood told his House colleagues before the vote the legislation would require a one-time cost of $110,000.
“This is a low-cost, high-value measure,” he said.
The other two bills – House Bill 974 and House Bill 977 – have passed the Governmental Affairs Committee but not yet reached the House floor.
House Bill 974 would expand to a statewide program an existing pilot project giving voters the ability to scan paper ballots online.
“This is something that can be implemented right away,” LaHood said. “(The secretary of state) is making provisions to do this.”
House Bill 977 would expand the number of election contests subject to audits from just the race at the top of the ballot to a second race involving one of the statewide races. The second race to be audited would be chosen by a committee of five officials: the governor, the lieutenant governor, the speaker of the state House of Representatives, and the House and Senate minority leaders.
Anne Herring, policy analyst for Common Cause Georgia, raised concerns about the latter provision.
“The governor and lieutenant governor get to vote on whether their own races will be audited,” Herring told LaHood’s committee. “That’s a little concerning to me in terms of public confidence in elections.”
LaHood said including the two minority leaders and bringing the membership to five should allay those concerns.
“One or two people couldn’t sway that decision,” he said. “We need three people to vote together.”
The full House and Senate are expected to act on all of the election reform bills this month.