A bill that would upgrade Georgia’s voting machines is winding its way through the Georgia Senate after clearing the House earlier this week.
HB 316 calls for Georgia to purchase touchscreen ballot-marking devices with a paper component, and makes numerous changes to how election law deals with absentee voting, voter registration and how votes are tallied.
New Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger has been following the bill’s progress closely, testifying at many of the subcommittee and committee hearings. He says that county elections officials overwhelmingly support ballot-marking devices as the best option for voters, and he thinks so, too.
While the bill was being heard for the first time in a Senate subcommittee on Thursday, I sat down with Raffensperger to talk about the bill and the future of Georgia’s elections.
Read the transcript of our conversation below.
First, let's take a look at a press release that your office sent out this week estimating the cost of hand-marked paper ballots. Now, your office found that over the course of 10 years it would cost between $207 million to about $250 million dollars for that to happen. In this year's budget, there's $150 million towards these ballot-marking devices ... but that's only for this one year. How did the two compare budget-wise?
Well, the reason that we put together that budget is that many of the legislators were being contacted by constituents, and people are putting out this information that a hand-marked paper ballot system was only $30 million, and we just didn't understand where they were coming up with that number.
So we reached out to the counties and got numbers from them: What would it cost to actually buy the paper and run an election with hand-marked paper ballot? So, that's how we came up with that budget.
Obviously, with the ballot-marking device we're looking at buying a machine this year or early next year to get ready for the elections, and you have to purchase that. But then you wouldn't have that paper cost over a period of time.
When we buy the ballot-marking device with touch screen technology, we estimate that should last for three presidential cycles, so at least 12 years. But we did a 10-year run just to give us an idea of what it would cost with a hand-marked paper ballot system.
So, you could see that it's not as cheap as people were laying it out to be. That's not $30 million; it's going to be, you know, over $200 million.
The $150 million would just be for this year, but there would be additional costs moving forward. So there would be additional costs for the ballot-marking device as well, which may push it closer to $200 million over the course of ten years…. So, what then is the financial difference in those two?
Relatively little over a 10-year period. And that's the point, really. At the end of the day, this was at some level a financial judgment. Obviously, we will be mindful of taxpayer dollars, but the county election supervisors weighed in, and 94 percent of them said they wanted to go at the ballot-marking device.
What they're really talking about is they want to make sure their elections were efficient. They wanted to make sure that the voters got it right. And they thought the best way to do that was to use touch screen technology so that the voter could look at what their selections were, push that on their touch screen and then print out the ballot, and then that would be optically scanned as it would be within hand-marked paper ballots.
So, it was really the folks that run the elections that felt that the most secure way of doing that would be with a ballot-marking device.
And the other difference in cost is hand-marked paper ballots, your office projects most of the costs would be paid for by Georgia's 159 counties versus the ballot-marking devices, that would be paid for by the state.
Correct. So, in 2002, when we updated the new machines which we went to the [direct-recording electronic machines] that we're using right now, the state made a decision that they're going to have a uniform system so everyone vote the same way throughout the state and the state is going to pick up the cost of those DREs.
Likewise, when they looked at legislation last year and the legislation that we have this year, the cost for the new machines will be borne by the state instead of being pushed down and funded by the counties.
Going back to the comment about county elections officials wanting ballot-marking devices, at several hours of hearings with both the SAFE Commission and in the state House and Senate, we've heard from those county elections officials expressing their concerns.
But most of the people who have testified have been people who want hand-marked paper ballots. In another interview you called those people “outside of the mainstream,” yet it begs the question: With enough people expressing their support for hand-marked paper ballots, calling their lawmakers… Is that really something that's outside of the mainstream? And how do you reconcile those people’s views with incorporating that into the ballot-marking devices legislation that's moving forward?
Well, the election world when you have an election and 75 percent of people prefer one candidate over another, you call it a landslide. And so Landmark [Communications] did a poll a few weeks ago, and they went out there and they talked to Georgians, and they did a poll.
It was very interesting that 75 to 80 percent of all Georgians preferred a ballot-marking device with touchscreen technology. They asked another question that was very interesting. They thought that the length of time we had for early voting is about the right time also.
So, I think that gave useful information for our legislators.
I should point out that Landmark Communications helped run your campaign for secretary of state, and the deputy secretary of state used to work for Landmark. Do you not see that as maybe, you know, a self-fulfilling prophecy of a poll put out to maybe pick a selection or put a poll out that would benefit what you see as the choice for Georgia’s machines?
Landmark and Rosetta are recognized as the top pollsters in Georgia when they poll on who's going to win this election, who's going to win the presidential election, whatever the election may be. Their numbers are always very accurate and I feel confident that people can trust that they did it professionally.
I know that people might want to raise that, but there's always people that are looking for a reason to pick a fight.
But, at the end of the day, I think that Landmark's poll shows the correct values of what it is.
You have to understand that a lot of people that support the touchscreen technology, they don't show up at these meetings. They're out there and they're just working their jobs. They're trying to, you know provide for their families and they feel really comfortable about it.
And so they're not up in arms, and they think we're going to get it right in the General Assembly. And by and large the General Assembly usually gets it right.
Moving on now to the election law part of the voting machine bill, HB 316. A lot of the changes that are in there have been decided by federal judges in last November's election cycle. Some of them have been amendments or proposals from Democrats and Republicans in the legislature. What does that do for how Georgians will vote in the future?
Well, I think it's very helpful that the Republican leadership in the House when they're crafting HB 316 they're reaching out to all the constituencies and one of the constituencies they reached out to was the House Democratic leadership.
In fact, several Democratic members, they had bills, and some of those bills were incorporated into HB 316. So, from that standpoint, it was a bipartisan measure. When it got down to the vote, it would have been nice to have more Democrats vote on and join us on that.
But for some reason, the narrative has been that you know, I guess the national Democrats and national liberal organizations want hand-marked paper ballots, they don't get that then they're going to stomp their feet and they're just not going to feel real comfortable with the ballot-marking device.
But that's their political position that they want to take. I think that the General Assembly has been very constructive in trying to bring people together and make sure that all viewpoints were heard.
This week the group Fair Fight Action, which was founded by former gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, announced that they had several hundred people who had sworn testimony about problems they faced at the polls. Many of those problems came from issues at the local or county level, which is something ultimately you as the secretary of state are not responsible for. But do you think it's your role as secretary of state to guide those county and local elections officials to where an election is the same in Dalton as it is in Dahlonega as it is in Valdosta?
Wherever we can bring our resources to come alongside county resources I think that's a good thing. We don't want to become a top down ogre like sometimes the federal government is to Georgia, but we want to make sure that we're helping our friends out there at the county level.
We may have resources and may be able to help them with training and communicating to their people. We also want to make sure that the state election board has a uniform policy and that those are incorporated at the county level, and then they're implemented that way so that we can avoid some of those questions that we had in the last election.
Why should Georgians trust our election system and why should Georgians trust you to help oversee it?
Well, number one they should trust me because I want to get the election process right. I come at this as a business owner as an engineer and I'm really looking at the process of ‘how do we get it right then of the day.’
I want to make sure that when you when you cast your ballot that you know it was cast properly, it was recorded properly and then we're going to open up the new ballot box that we have and we're going to say there's all the ballots counted.
We'll do a physical recount if we have to in those really close elections, but we're going to pull those out… we'll be out to do an audit. At the end of the day, in that 52-48 [election] the audit is going to show it was a 52-48 race, it was a 55-45 race, whatever it is, to give you the confidence that your vote was accurately cast.
Now I know that we live in very contentious times. I know that we'll have very close elections and you may still be disappointed because your candidate didn't win, but at least if you had the confidence of “Yeah my person didn't win, but they got it right.”
And that means you just have to redouble you effort, and come back next two years, and come back in the next four years, and try again.
Speaking of knowing your candidate wins and things like that, there are some people who think that there is already a pre-determined voting machine vendor, and that it's going to be ES&S and that it's going to be a certain type of machine, with a certain type of barcode being used.
What are you going to do during the procurement process for these new machines to make sure that it's transparent, and that whoever the vendor is is picked fairly, and that all Georgians can trust that?
Well, it's very important for Georgians to know that as we develop our RFP we want to make sure that it is a very open and uniform process, and that we don't have… we're not going to tilt the scales towards any one vendor. First of all, I don't think it's wise because you do that, you're going to get sued by the other vendors.
They're going to see what game you’re playing, and so we're going to make sure that we get it right, that we will have an open competition.
We want to get lots of pricing back so that we can evaluate that on price, deliverables, quality, all the different will parameters go into so we get it right for all Georgians. And that's my commitment to every Georgian.
Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger thank you for speaking with me.