Bill aims to reduce long lines at Georgia polling places

Legislation filed Friday aims to reduce long lines at Georgia polling places on election day. It would also give county election officials flexibility to determine how many voting machines they think they need for elections that generally have lower turnout.

Georgia’s elections have been under scrutiny in recent years. Voting rights advocates have complained about long lines that they say deprive some people of their right to vote because they’re unable or unwilling to wait in lines that can sometimes take hours.

Georgia’s new $103 million voting system is set to be used for the first time statewide, starting on Monday, when early voting for the state’s March 24 presidential primary begins. The new machines, called ballot-marking devices, require voters to make choices on a touchscreen, then retrieve a printed-out paper ballot that’s run through a ballot scanner to record their votes.

If voters have to wait in line for more than an hour before checking in to vote in a precinct with more than 2,000 registered voters, election officials would have to make changes before the next general election, the new legislation says. They would have to reduce the size of the precinct so it includes fewer than 2,000 registered voters or they could provide additional voting equipment and/or poll workers.

For November general elections in even-numbered years, precincts would be required to have one voting machine for every 250 registered voters, which is what’s required for all elections under current law. The new legislation would allow county election officials to provide more or fewer machines than that for any other election, including primaries or runoffs, based on the type of election, expected turnout, the number of early or absentee ballots cast and any other relevant factors.

The legislation is sponsored by state Sen. John Kennedy, a Republican from Macon.

At its meeting Friday morning, the State Election Board had considered a proposed rule change that would have allowed county election officials to subtract the number of registered voters who cast early or absentee ballots before calculating the minimum number of voting machines they’re required to have on election day.

But election board members voted to scrap that rule after Secretary of State’s office general counsel Ryan Germany explained the changes set forth in the proposed legislation. If the legislation fails to pass, Germany said, they can revisit the issue after the end of the legislative session.

The board did vote to adopt a rule requiring that election recounts be conducted by running ballots through the same electronic ballot scanners used to generate the first tally. The ballot scanners read bar codes on a voter’s printed ballot encoded with their choices in each race.

Under the rule, recounts would not include a manual review of the printed text selections on the ballot that can be checked by the voter. Each ballot scanner used in the recount would be tested beforehand by scanning a batch of ballots and comparing that to a manual hand count of the same batch.

After all the ballots are rescanned for the recount, the election “superintendent shall cause a printout to be made of the results and shall compare the results to the results previously obtained,” the rule says.

Under Georgia law, losing candidates can request a recount if they are within .5% of the total votes cast for the winning candidate.

A state law passed last year calls for audits that include a manual review of random samples of the paper ballots for any federal or state general election by November.

Some visually impaired voters spoke out during a public comment period. Some said they found the device meant to help them navigate the machines confusing. Others complained that instead of allowing them to bring assistive technology devices to help them check their ballots, those should be provided.

The board proposed a rule to be voted on at its next meeting that would provide that assistive technology at each polling place. Germany said it’s unlikely that could be done before March primary but that the devices could likely be in place before another round of primaries in May.

A number of people also complained that the large, bright, vertical touchscreens on the new machines violate voters’ right to a secret ballot because they allow other people in a polling place to see a voter’s selections. Voting machine configurations sent by the Secretary of State’s office to county election officials are insufficient, they argued, because many polling places are too small to accommodate those configurations.


Associated Press writer Ben Nadler contributed to this report.