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'It enhances the voter's trust': In Election Day experiment, four Cobb County cities are using paper ballots

The one-time pilot program will serve as a model if Georgia needs a backup plan when it uses new machines next year.

COBB COUNTY, Ga. — Voters in four Cobb County cities are headed to the polls today to cast their vote for mayors and city council seats, a typical Election Day marked by one notable change: Markers.

Specifically, the markers they'll use to fill out good, old-fashioned paper ballots by hand.

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In the legal fight over new voting machines Georgia intends to use next year, a federal judge ordered the state to develop a paper-ballot contingency plan in case those machines can't be used. Cobb County volunteered to be a guinea pig for paper.

"I think it enhances the voter’s trust," Cobb County Director of Elections Janine Eveler told 11Alive's Christie Ethridge. "It does for me as an election official - being able to, if necessary, hand count what those paper ballots said or if we need a recount or an audit. Whereas the previous system, it was recorded on a memory device and there was nothing else we could do to prove the results were accurate."

"So as an election official I’m grateful we’ll have that paper record," Eveler added.

The four cities testing out paper ballots are Austell, Kennesaw, Powder Springs and Smyrna.

The paper ballot experiment is actually two-fold: Most voters will do it the way you're thinking, by grabbing a pen and bubbling in their ballot like how you took a test in school.

Eveler said there have been some issues with that in advance voting - what she called an "element of human error" that ranges from poll workers finding the right ballot a voter needs to voters who have different ideas of how it should be marked. ("There are folks even today with the mail ballots who will put a check mark, an X or even circle the name. Some have marked through all the names they don't want," she said.)

The other half of the experiment involves electronic voting that produces a paper ballot, and is what Georgia intends to use statewide next year.

Those in Cobb County who need assistance, either because of eyesight issues or motor impairments or other reasons, will use what's known as a ballot marking device. Basically, these are tablet-style electronic voting screens that then print out a paper ballot people submit. 

Getting to test drive these machines before Georgia attempts to implement them throughout the state is why Eveler raised Cobb County's hand when officials asked for counties to test out paper ballots.

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"There were some challenges with the tight time frame, but it provided us to get to know the new election equipment and see ahead of time what some of the rules would be that the state election board might have to initiate," Eveler said. "So it gave us a leg up on what we'll be doing next year."

Six other Georgia counties - Catoosa, Paulding, Bartow, Carroll, Decatur and Lowndes - are piloting the full ballot marking device system.

Eveler described the touch screen on the system as "bigger and easier to see" than what voters would be accustomed to from digital voting systems in the past, and expected voters to take to it.

"The difference is once they finish ... it doesn't cast the ballot into a memory device. It prints the ballot," she explained. "So there's a printer attached to each of these tablets and they take the printed ballot and review if it printed out exactly what they wanted. If it didn't, they have a chance to spoil that and start over."

"Then they take it to the scanner and it goes into the ballot box," Eveler added.

If Georgia can't make this system work next year, that's when Cobb County's hand-marking test would be instituted statewide.

That's relatively unlikely, though, so if you're in Austell, Kennesaw, Powder Springs or Smyna today, appreciate what could be a once-in-a-lifetime voting experience.


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