Voting in Georgia will look different next year now that the state has purchased new touchscreen ballot-marking devices.
The secretary of state’s office is inviting voters to test them out at demonstrations across Georgia before the scheduled first use in March.
The smell of turkey legs and the sounds of carnival rides filled the air at the Georgia National Fair Monday morning in Perry.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the event, and the state’s finest agriculture, livestock and arts were on full display at the fairgrounds.
But, inside the Georgia Grown building, around the corner from samples of cold, refreshing milk sat a unique display of decorative peanuts, pumpkins and a makeshift polling place.
Camila Negron, a 15-year-old student at Jenkins High School in Savannah, described the new process.
She may not yet be old enough to vote on the new ballot-marking devices next fall, but Negron is one of several student volunteers who showed fairgoers how the system works.
She was part of an ambassadors program the secretary of state’s office designed to immerse high schoolers into the voting process.
“I'm helping people understand how easy voting is,” she said, offering up a high-five after each person casts their ballot. “And I feel like I'm contributing to our future in a way, because I'm allowing people to see how easy it is and make them realize, ‘Oh I can just vote in like two minutes.’”
The state fair is one of many places the secretary of state’s office plans to bring the new $107 million voting system for Georgians to interact with before it is time for a real election.
Election workers have seen demos everywhere from Decatur County to Gwinnett County, and a longtime media veteran was just hired to help spread the word about the new machines.
The Dominion ballot-marking devices will replace 17-year-old direct-recording electronic machines a federal judge said cannot be used after 2019.
Georgia’s new machines are similar to how we currently vote in some ways – like using a touchscreen that displays the questions on the ballot.
But, instead of storing the vote on a memory card, the new process prints out a piece of paper with a QR code and a textual summary of the races and the selections a voter made.
Negron walked people through those steps, from checking in on an iPad to making selections on the touchscreen to inserting the printed paper ballot into a scanner to be counted and stored.
The stakes are a little lower in this mock election than 2020 – voters here weighed in on their favorite ice cream flavor, favorite Georgia crop, favorite fair food and favorite Georgia sports team – but Negron’s teacher, Carolyn Perry, said having the machines at the fair is necessary to having people trust the electoral process.
“I think there's a lot of stakeholders involved for voting in our state, and we've had some struggles making voting transparent as possible,” she said. “I think this is a good step in the right direction and making sure that people feel that voting is fair.”
But not everyone shares the same enthusiasm and optimism about the upgraded machines.
A new federal lawsuit filed by a group of election integrity advocates and Georgia voters challenging the security of ballot-marking devices is still pending. They say the new machines, much like the old ones, are vulnerable to hacking.
By Monday afternoon, more than 1,600 people had tried out the Dominion voting system, including Melanie Hand, who drove an hour and a half up I-75 from Adel to visit the fair.
She happened to walk by the voting machines and said she volunteers as a poll worker back home.
“I'm sure there will be a lot of anxious people, but I'm hoping everybody will see how easy it is and that everyone will come out and vote,” she said.
Only a handful of the state’s 159 counties will test the new touchscreen devices in elections this fall. Cobb County’s municipal elections will be conducted on hand-marked paper ballots as a potential back-up system in case the ballot-marking devices aren’t ready.
The new voting system is scheduled to be in place for the March 24, 2020, presidential preference primary.