MOULTRIE, Ga. – The first day of early voting for the House District 171 Special Election saw Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger visit the Colquitt County Courthouse Annex to watch the new paper-ballot voting system in action.
Raffensperger was hopeful about the new machines and their performance based on previous training and experience.
“We went to Gwinnett County and did our first demonstration there, then we went to a senior center down in Clayton County after being invited by state Representative Valencia Stovall. It was just exciting to see the people jump up out of their chairs once we asked, ‘Who would like to vote?’” said Raffensperger. “Then we went to the state fair in Perry where we had 3700 people vote on the new machines. We didn’t get a single negative review. Everyone felt positive about it, everyone felt good about holding a piece of paper, seeing how the system worked. They said, ‘This is really simple!’ We got a lot of great feedback.”
The special election to fill the unexpired term in Georgia House of Representatives District 171 offered the state another chance to test the new machines. Six counties used them in the November election.
State Rep. Jay Powell, R-Camilla, died in November, and Raffensperger set Jan. 28 as the date of a special election to fill his seat. A three-week early voting period began Monday in the three counties of his district: All of Mitchell and parts of Decatur and Colquitt counties. Eight of Colquitt County’s 19 precincts — the western part of the county — are within District 171, so they’re the ones participating in the election.
Early voting is taking place 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Monday-Friday through Jan. 24 in Room 201 of the Courthouse Annex, 101 E. Central Ave. in Moultrie. Voting on Jan. 28 will take place in the regular polling places.
Three people are running for the seat — Tommy Akridge and Joe Campbell, both of Camilla, are running as Republicans, and Jewell Howard of Baconton is running as a Democrat.
On Monday, Colquitt County poll workers said the first day of voting using the new paper-ballot system went off without a hitch.
“During the pilot phase of testing, there was a 0.164 percent error rate. That leaves about a 99.8 success rate,” said Raffensperger. “The key to relieving any issues that we might have had with the machines is training, training, training. Our poll members had to go through a lot of training in order to be able to combat any issues that might have come up, and we still have more training to do.”
“We just had a big convention in Savannah with 750 people in Savannah, which were your county officials, members of the county election boards and their chief assistants. We’ve gone through two rounds of regional training for every county,” said Raffensperger. “Every county in the state of Georgia has at least two machines. Colquitt, Mitchell and Decatur have their equipment. Last week I was in DeKalb County; they have all their equipment. Fulton and Gwinnett County get theirs next week. So, that’s just the metro counties — some of the largest counties — that have reached 34 percent. Well over 40 percent of the state will have their equipment by mid-January. We’ll be done by the first of February, every county will have their equipment, so they can go out there and touch and feel and keep on working on it.”
The first voter to officially use the voting system was Florene Sellers, a poll worker stationed to work the first day.
“It makes me feel honored that I was the first person to vote on the new machines,” said Sellers. “There was a difference in using these new machines versus the old ones. When you get your paper out and see what you actually voted, there’s no doubt in your mind that there was no change in your answer. A lot of people were worried that their answer had changed when they first voted with the old machines. Voters will be more confident with this new system.”
All this training and usage is leading up to the bigger elections in the coming year, the Presidential Primary in March and the General Election in November.
“Everyone gets two sets of machines for training all the poll workers so that we can get them ready for the Presidential Primaries. We think there will be a strong turnout,” said Raffensperger.
Raffensperger also assured voters that the new voting system was going to be familiar in some ways, but different in others.
“It’s going to be similar, but different. Similar because it’s going to be touchscreen technology like you’ve used for 18 years. But after you’ve made all your selections on the touchscreen and press that button, here’s where it will be different. You press that button to print your ballot as opposed to casting your ballot. You’ll print out an eight and a half by eleven ballot so you can look at all your choices. You’ll be able to hold that ballot and verify that you’ve made the right selection and then the voter keeps control of it and goes over and puts in on the ballot scanner. We take a digital image of it. For the first time in 18 years, we’ll be able to do physical recounts.”
According to Raffensperger, any election in the state of Georgia will be able to do a “risk-limiting audit” using these new paper-ballot systems.
“In this election there are three voters, but let’s say down the road that it was reported on the evening news that it was 55-45. When we do the audit, the audit will come back and verify those results, and if for some reason it didn’t verify those results, we can keep pulling out ballots until we get conformance and alignment. It gives you that confidence that we have a way of checking 100 percent of all the ballots in Georgia with the paper ballots.”