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Atlanta Journal Constitution


Governor signs bill for Georgia to use touch-screen voting 

David Pendered
April 19, 2001

All Georgia voters will use a modern touch-screen balloting system in the next presidential election, under legislation Gov. Roy Barnes signed into law Wednesday.

The state now is the first in the nation to require that a uniform electronic voting system be in place by July 2004. The system is to be tested this fall in up to five Georgia cities.

"I think it's definitely a good move," said Robert Richie, executive director of the Center for Voting and Democracy, a nonprofit election watchdog group in Takoma Park, Md.

"It's the first such bill passed in the wake of last year's election, which triggered so much greater awareness of the election process," Richie said. "It's not going to be the only one, but it may be one of the very few to be enacted this year."

Florida's Legislature is trying to modernize that state's system. One of the few points of agreement is for Florida to abandon the punch ballot of hanging chad fame, said Clay Roberts, director of Florida's elections division.

Connecticut and Louisiana are moving toward electronic voting systems, Richie said. But, like Georgia, they are troubled by the expense.

Secretary of State Cathy Cox's office estimates the cost for outfitting all of Georgia's 159 counties with touch screens could be $35 million to $150 million. An alternative would be to lease the equipment, said Cox's spokesman, Chris Riggall.

The federal government is expected to provide grants to the states to modernize their voting machinery. Congress is still debating the details, and there is no guarantee the money will be allocated.

Cox is optimistic funding will be provided. She has testified in Washington in support of federal funding for voting reform, and asked the Georgia Legislature this year to set aside $5 million to match the expected federal funding.

Lawmakers declined, but approved Barnes' request for $200,000 to study ways to improve the state's system. The 17-member panel, called the 21st Century Voting Commission, is to set standards for the touch screens and recommend a specific system for adoption.

Barnes indicated that he expects the new machines to be funded with federal, state and local money, since the election process is the responsibility of all three levels of government.

Barnes did not say how much he expects local governments to contribute. When Senate Bill 213 was being considered, the Association County Commissioners of Georgia said it would support the measure if counties did not have to pay to upgrade voting equipment.

Georgia now uses four types of voting apparatus --- paper ballots, punch cards, optical scan and lever machines. About 94,000 votes in Georgia in the 2000 presidential election were not counted because of some type of malfunction, Cox said.

About 25 Georgia cities have expressed interest in being part of this fall's pilot program. Atlanta has not inquired, Cox said, but Augusta officials have repeatedly asked for their city to be included. The selections are to be made next month, Cox said.

Fulton County elections officials said Wednesday they want to lease optical scanners for $690,000 a year, as part of a $1.3 million election reform package. Fulton County commissioners balked, saying they wanted to wait to see what systems may be adopted.

Staff writer David Bennett contributed to this article.


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