By Greg Bluestein, Mark Niesse
Gov. Brian Kemp signed legislation to replace Georgia's electronic voting machines with a touchscreen-and-paper ballot election system, after a polarizing debate over how to balance the integrity of the vote with ensuring accurate election results.
The Republican was long expected to sign House Bill 316, which divided Republicans and Democrats over whether voters should use computer-printed ballots or paper ballots bubbled in with a pen.
But the timing and quiet nature of the bill signing was peculiar: His office said in a notice posted on his website Wednesday that Kemp inked the bill, along with 20 lower-profile measures, on Tuesday during the last day of the legislative session.
The overhaul was introduced with Kemp's blessing after his narrow election victory over Democrat Stacey Abrams, who cast the Republican as an "architect of voter suppression" and accused him of creating barriers to ballot access.
Kemp and other Republicans supported the new system as a more accurate way to count votes, saying they're easy to use and provide a paper record to verify vote counts. They were also strongly supported by government workers experienced in running elections.
The measure passed the House and Senate mostly on a party line vote and approved in time to allow the system to be in place for next year's presidential election, when the state's 7 million registered voters will be eligible to cast their ballots.
And it comes as a swirl of federal lawsuits challenge Georgia's voting practices, including one filed by election integrity advocates before U.S. District Judge Amy Totenberg that seeks to force a switch to hand-marked paper ballots.
Kemp and other Republicans supported the new voting machines, saying they're easy to use and provide a paper record to verify vote counts. The devices also include accessibility options, such as adjustable type sizes, for disabled voters.
Led by Abrams, Democrats fought the legislation and pointed to cybersecurity experts who warned it would leave Georgia's elections susceptible to hacking and tampering.
Just this week, the Fair Fight voting rights group started by Abrams launched a television ad critical of the bill. In a statement Thursday, the group called it "corruption at its worst" and a waste of money on "hackable voting machines."
Kemp included $150 million in his budget proposal for the new system, which includes printers that spit out paper ballots for voters to review and then insert into a scanning machine for tabulation.
Opponents say the new machines will wind up costing far more, with maintenance and repair expenses, and worry that counties will be forced to pick up the tab.
Just who will supply the machines remains unknown. Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger put out a request for vendors in mid-March -- weeks before the law was signed. But the close ties between one leading elections firm and a Kemp deputy has drawn scrutiny.
The timeline is tight: Test runs will likely take place in the November municipal elections before the machines are rolled out statewide for next year's presidential primary. The timing of that vote hasn't been set yet as officials prepare for the switch.
The new law also overhauls Georgia's election policies by giving voters more time and alerts before their registrations are canceled, which could curtail large-scale removals of voters from the rolls.
Georgia election officials, dating to 2012, removed more than 1.4 million voter registrations while Kemp was secretary of state.
Other parts of the law make changes that federal judges ordered in a burst of rulings surrounding November's election.
Absentee ballots couldn't be rejected because of apparent signature mismatches alone, and organizations could provide an unlimited number of volunteers to help voters who need assistance casting their ballots, such as those who speak English as a second language or have disabilities.
And it prevents counties from changing polling places 60 days before a general or primary election, an issue that gained national attention after officials in Randolph County tried to close seven of nine voting sites.
(c)2019 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.)