Ahead of the 2020 presidential election, Georgia is set to make what will likely be the largest, single purchase of voting technology in the U.S. since at least 2016.
It’s not clear what the exact price will be, and even more uncertain is the long-term cost borne by Georgia’s 159 counties as they run elections with new equipment.
The Republican lawmakers and officials now leading the push to replace the state’s 17-year-old, touchscreen voting machines have done little, at least publicly, to develop clear estimates of how much the new technology they favor will cost in the long run.
“I think they’re trying to muddy things,” said Jason Pye, vice president of legislative affairs for the conservative advocacy organization Freedom Works.
Pye was referencing a memo released by Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger in late February.
According to the memo, signed by the elections director in Raffensperger’s office, replacing the current touchscreen voting machines with hand-marked paper ballots would cost the state and counties between $207 million and $224 million over 10 years.
Raffensperger and other Republicans are using the figures to argue against hand-marked paper ballots.
They favor new touchscreen voting machines that print paper ballots, often called ballot marking devices.
Republicans point out that local election officials also favor the new touchscreen voting machines because they’re similar to what Georgia currently uses. And local officials say fewer questions would come up about voter intent.
But, cybersecurity experts warn the touchscreen voting machines are vulnerable to potential hacks or malfunctions, and the experts recommend hand-marked paper ballots.
Democrats in the Georgia legislature favor hand-marked paper ballots.
With both ballot marking devices, and hand-marked ballots, the paper would be scanned and then stored for potential audits or recounts.
Proponents of hand-marked paper ballots say the system would be less expensive than the touchscreen ballot marking devices.
Meanwhile, advocates for improving elections and access to voting who are not in the trenches of the Georgia fight over election technology, say a debate about cost might be missing the point.
“I think generally there is not enough funding put up for elections,” says Edgardo Cortés, with the Brennen Center for Justice at the New York University Law School.
Cortés says if governments spent more money on elections it could help improve security, access, and voter confidence.
Fighting Over Cost
Raffensperger’s office has not made public an analysis of how much it estimates a touchscreen system would cost, but says $150 million would be enough.
That’s the amount included in the pending state budget still awaiting approval from lawmakers.
“You could make the case that a ballot marking device was cheaper” Raffensperger said at a press conference celebrating the passage of a bill in the state House that would require ballot marking devices.
The $150 million would cover the initial purchase of new technology, not the cost of maintenance or ballot printing that is expected to fall on counties.
Raffensperger’s office has not released an estimate of the long-term cost of ballot marking devices, and legislators as of Monday had not requested a fiscal analysis from state auditors.
When it comes to hand-marked paper ballots, Pye said the estimates from the Secretary of State’s office for the long-term costs are just wrong.
“They’re making some pretty broad estimates, that I don’t think even come close to matching reality,” he said.
In response, Deputy Secretary of State Jordan Fuchs said: “I encourage organizations to release their comparable numbers, based on actual data collected by officials in the state of Georgia and RFI’s (Requests For Information) through multiple vendors.”
One example of Pye’s questions about the Secretary of State’s analysis is about the price of paper ballots, a large cost to counties when administering an election.
In his memo, elections director Chris Harvey wrote that the Secretary of State’s office estimates pre-printed ballots would cost 55 cents based on information from local election officials, without going into more detail.
“The 55 cents is believed by our office to likely be on the low side,” he wrote.
Pye argues that’s double the likely cost.
In 2017, Cobb County awarded a contract for absentee and provisional ballots at 28 cents per ballot.
A non-artisan 2013 analysis by the North Carolina fiscal research division estimated a printing cost of 25 cents per ballot.
The Open Source Election Technology institute, a non-profit based in California, analyzed the potential long-term cost in Georgia of both hand-marked paper ballots, and ballot marking devices.
It found the cost of hand-marked paper ballots would be somewhere between $113 million and $182 million, while the cost of ballot marking devices with on-demand thermal printing would be about $203 million.
In the end, Cortés said the long-term cost of ballot marking devices and hand-marked paper ballots comes out to be about the same.
Cortés has worked in elections at the state and local level for over 15 years. He said picking the best system for voters should be the priority.
“I think cost should be a secondary factor,” he said. “I mean it’s certainly very important. But I don’t think it is more important than can the equipment do what we need it to do, and do it well?”