Wide shot interior warehouse with concrete floors and fluorescent lights on ceiling. There are tall rows of shelves containing dozens of large Dominion voting machines.
The Cobb County Elections and Registrations Office warehouse keeps the county's Dominion voting machines secure. (Manuel Lugo/Fresh Take Georgia)

Cobb County elections director Tate Fall opens the door to the warehouse inside the Elections and Registrations office. She reveals rows of storage shelves fully stocked with Dominion voting equipment.

Cobb is one of 159 counties in Georgia using machines by Dominion Voting Systems as it prepares for the presidential election this November.  

“Our warehouse here is full,” Fall said, indicating that her election workers need to be licensed to operate a forklift. 

Cobb is one of the largest counties in Georgia with over 510,000 active voters, according to the secretary of state’s office. 

“We’re expanding to another facility across the street,” Fall said, then wondered out loud, “What do we do with the old equipment and where do we put the new equipment?”  

On Feb. 6, state senators voted 31-22 to pass Senate Bill 189 sponsored by Sen. Max Burns (R-Sylvania), Chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee. If passed by the state House and signed into law, the bill would remove QR codes from printed ballots and require the text portion of the ballot be counted as the official vote.  

Georgia’s voting machines use scanners that read the QR codes which have the voter’s selection embedded in them. 

Sen. Burns said the additional scanners for reading text “would cost around $15 million.” The costs sparked debate among the members of the Senate Ethics Committee.  

“I hope that the state would be able to absorb the costs, kicking it down to the counties that would have to buy it would not be fiscally conservative,” said Sen. Derek Mallow (D-Savannah).  

The Georgia House of Representatives is considering its own proposal to eliminate barcodes. The House Appropriations Committee voted to include $5 million to upgrade counties’ scanners and software. 

During the Feb. 6 Senate Ethics Committee hearing, Sen. Burns provided a straightforward explanation of his bill.  

“We are simply taking the ballot as it’s currently printed by the Dominion voting systems, but we are removing the QR code and we’re tabulating the ballot based upon the text that a human can read,” he said. 

“The current system does not do that,” Bartow Country elections director Joseph Kirk explained. “There’s not enough time to upgrade machines before the presidential election.” 

Installing new software to read the ballot text nearly nine months before the November election is a major obstacle. 

“There isn’t enough time until November to update the voting machines,” Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s office noted in a recent statement. 

At the Senate Ethics Committee hearing, Sen. Brandon Beach (R-Alpharetta) asked Sen. Burns, “Would we be able to order those 3,500 scanners and have them ready for the November elections?”  

“My goal would certainly be to implement it as quickly as possible,” Burns answered.  

The 2024 presidential election will be the first since the passing of a controversial state voting law in 2021. The Election Integrity Act of 2021 required voters to have identification to mail their ballots, changed early voting dates, required counties to certify results in six days instead of ten, made it a misdemeanor for volunteers to hand out food or drinks to voters waiting in poll lines, and instituted shorter runoff periods for general and primary elections.  

Gwinnett County elections director Zachary Manifold expressed his concern about the workload the proposed bill brings.  

“Since the runoff is now about 90 days of election work crammed into about three weeks, we have a lot more to process and a lot less time,” Manifold said. “Election officials are running five elections this year … that July time frame is about the only rest period my staff’s going to get this year and if they’re going to upgrade systems, it probably has to be over the summer, and it is going to attack the elections officials.”

On Feb. 6, the Georgia House Appropriations Committee approved Gov. Brian Kemp’s $37.5 billion fiscal 2024 midyear budget. Of that budget, $5 million would be earmarked for the secretary of state’s office to improve voter confidence. The funds will go to provide paper ballots that do not rely on QR codes and add visible watermarks to paper ballots.  

State election officials, however, said they continue to have complete confidence in the current voting system. 

“The results have always been verified by our risk-limiting audit,” Manifold said. 

“It isn’t just all reliant on the QR code, there is a post-election verification, no matter what system you have … Even if you didn’t use a QR code, I tell everybody you have to have that post-election audit because even if you had a full face ballot with ovals, the computer is still essentially counting the coordinates of where that oval is,” he said. 

Bartow County elections director Joseph Kirk said implementing the bill before the November presidential election is irresponsible.   

“I just don’t see any way to responsibly make that change during a presidential election year,” Kirk said. “You know, it’s kind of [like] trying to change horses midstream, which is not a good idea.”  

Kirk said reinforcing the current voting system is the best way to prepare for November.  

“To me, a better solution is to focus on the physical security, focus on the audits, focus on everything that surrounds the election … Make sure all that’s rock solid, and make sure we’re observed as we’re tabulating ballots, as we’re operating the system, by poll watchers for both parties that can vouch for us … That’s the path forward, not changing the pen,” Kirk said.  

Mary Beth, a poll worker from Cherokee County, suggests that SB 189 is moving in the opposite direction to increase voter confidence.  

“We could have just had wooden boxes. But a lot of this is because people aren’t sure of the modern way of doing things,” said Beth. 

She encourages voters who are not confident in the state’s voting process to participate despite their apprehension. 

“If you’re scared, you should go and work it yourself and see how the hoops are,” she said. “If you took any of the classes that we have to take to do what we do all day long for those 15 or 14 hours, we’re doing the best we can.” Beth said.  

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