New voting machines get positive reviews, but not without a hitch

No waiting to vote at the Campbell Middle School gym in Smyrna at 9 a.m. Tuesday, as Cobb voters tried out new voting equipment using handwritten ballots. Turnout in the county was just under 16%.(Beau Evans/Georgia Recorder)

Voters in Decatur County ran into a technical glitch Tuesday morning at its three precincts, which caused a 45-minute delay, but Georgia’s new ballot-marking machines otherwise drew positive reviews in election day pilot testing.

The polls in Decatur County stayed open later to accommodate the dozen or so people who didn’t wait out the repair, said Carol Heard, the chief elections official for the county’s Board of Elections and Voter Registration.

“I mark it up as we’re doing a pilot,” Heard said Tuesday afternoon. “That’s what we’re doing, is trying to find these things out before we get to the big year.” 

Decatur was one of six counties where voters tried out Georgia’s new voting machines that the state hopes to have ready in time to roll out 30,000 of them statewide for the March 2020 Presidential primary. Most Georgians who voted in the county and municipal elections Tuesday cast ballots on the machines in use since 2002 on an off-year election day marked by typical low turnout..

The state purchased the new system for $107 million this year to upgrade aging touchscreen machines that critics called vulnerable to hacking. Voters cast ballot selections on the new machines on a large electronic touchscreen, print those selections on paper to check for accuracy and run the printed ballot through a scanner to record the votes. The setup has more steps than the old system, causing some voters minor problems Tuesday.

Joe Reece was among a handful of voters to cast his ballot around noon at the Watson Government Complex in Paulding County, another one of the six Georgia counties piloting the new voting machines. His experience with the Dominion Voting Systems device went smoothly, until he accidentally walked out of the precinct with his ballot still in hand. Reece got a few steps out the front door before a pair of poll workers ushered him back inside to scan the ballot.

Precincts should boost the number of poll workers on site for larger elections to keep an eye out for distracted mistakes like he made, Reece said. A more likely problem would be if the printers break down.

“You’ve added another possible glitch,” Reece said outside the government complex Tuesday before news broke of the Decatur County problems. “But as long as the printers work, there’s not much of a difference.”

Down the road in Hiram, Priscilla Wiggins called the new machines “really cool” shortly after casting her ballot at The Events Space community venue. She praised the new electronic check-in process involving smart cards and said that scanning her printed ballot felt “more secure” than the former touch screens she’s accustomed to using.

“You’re taking the paper to be scanned and no one else is doing it for you,” said Wiggins, a five-year Hiram resident and regular voter. “That seems important to me.”

Wiggins was among many Hiram voters deciding whether to change the time restaurants in the city can serve alcohol on Sundays, from 12:30 p.m. to 11 a.m. The Paulding County city was one of several other Georgia cities and counties to vote on the earlier time following passage of the state’s 2017 “Brunch Bill.”

Voters in three-fourths of Georgia’s 159 counties and about 400 cities headed to the polls Tuesday to vote on “Brunch Bill” measures, consider approving sales taxes for schools and transportation funding and to settle mayoral and city council contests. Among the most closely watched ballot items was the race to succeed retiring Smyrna Mayor Max Bacon, who served the Cobb County city for more than three decades. The race drew five candidates and occurred in the only county where voters used all-paper ballots as part of a court-ordered backup plan, in case the statewide rollout of the new machines misses the March 2020 deadline. None of the candidates won more than 50% of the vote, so Derek Norton and Ryan Campbell will face each other in a runoff.

Smyrna resident Matt DeFusco, an IT professional, cast his ballot at Campbell Middle School’s gym, where voters sent their hand-marked ballots through the same Dominion scanners that figure in the new system. DeFusco said he didn’t mind the paper ballots, which reminded him of “the old Scantron tests” he took in school. But, like the new machines, he wondered whether the extra steps with the scanner would prompt long lines or other issues in higher turnout elections.

“Bubbling in manually might be harder if there are 20 different things,” DeFusco said outside the gym Tuesday. “But other than that, it was easy and effort-free.”

Some voters and groups pushing for all-paper ballots criticized the Dominion machines as the state moved forward with the purchase this spring. They argue when votes are recorded in a barcode that the scanners read the devices could be open to hacking and results difficult to audit. The Georgia Secretary of State defends the machine’s security and supporters say the device prevents problems that plague all-paper voting forms, such as ballot stuffing.

Beau Evans
Beau Evans has covered local and state government and breaking news in New Orleans and California. He’s reported on immigration issues, the threat of rising seas to coastal areas, public safety and hurricanes. At The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, Evans detailed the critical role government plays to ensure that people in a community have access to clean water and other public needs. In 2018, his investigative reporting revealed top officials at New Orleans’ cash-poor water utility dealt themselves huge raises, prompting several to resign. Evans’ prior reporting was in West Marin north of San Francisco for The Point Reyes Light. Evans is an Atlanta native who graduated with honors from The Lovett School and is an honors graduate of North Carolina’s Davidson College.