Cover Story: Spotlight on Florida illuminates Georgia’s dark corners

Ask Georgia’s top elections official if she’s happy she holds office here and not one state south and she’ll answer, “You better believe it.”Secretary of State Cathy Cox has known her fair share of voting mishaps. But unlike her Florida counterpart Katherine Harris, Cox hasn’t had her own state’s dirty laundry aired every other second on national television, or splayed across the front page of every daily newspaper, or probed by District, Superior, State, Magistrate and Supreme courts.
“We had virtually identical problems in Georgia, in many respects, but we didn’t have the glare of the world watching over our shoulder,” Cox says. “We had recounts. We had counties that were late because they had equipment problems. We had counties that the day after elections had absentee ballots that they forgot to count — very similar issues to what you’ve seen in Florida.”
The fiasco in Florida has given Cox the opening she’s been waiting for. What better time to draw attention to the illness that plagues Georgia’s electoral system?
“I really had not gotten to a point where I was saying to the Legislature, let’s put some money on the table for this,” Cox says. “But now, if you’re going to accomplish anything by 2004, you’ve got to move. You’re never going to have a situation where the public is going to be more understanding of the need for improvement. So why not let’s go ahead?”
Not everyone shares Cox’s enthusiasm. Some Republicans, as well as some of Cox’s fellow Democrats, may not back her proposal, which asks for up to $200 million to fund high-tech touch-screen voting machines for Georgia’s 159 counties. Congressmen from both rural and urban districts say that they are hesitant to budget that much money for voting reform — despite the fact that such reforms will guarantee a more accurate vote.
“In my mind, the system that we’re using, which is much less costly, is the simplest one right now,” says Rep. Eric Johnson, R-Savannah. “I’m not so sure that there’s a problem that needs a state-mandated solution.”
Georgia Republican Party Chairman Chuck Clay identifies with Cox’s assessment of the state’s voting fiascos. “It’s pretty obvious, in Florida and around the state of Georgia, that a lot more votes are not being counted than we thought,” Clay says.
But when it comes to state intervention, Clay grows wary. Requiring electronic equipment will create “a two-tier system of voting because smaller counties are not going to have the money to buy newer, more sophisticated machinery,” he says. “If you’re going to mandate (electronic voting equipment) by the state of Georgia, is the state of Georgia, particularly in the poor counties, going to pay for it?”
The House has twice shot down in recent years other reforms Cox put before them.
House Majority Leader Rep. Larry Walker, D-Perry, says that what works for election boards in counties with 100,000 voters won’t immediately work for counties with 1,000 voters.
“Somebody’s going to have to convince me, with the great diversity in this state, that this is what we need to do right now,” Walker says of Cox’s proposal.
The opposition doesn’t change the fact that the electoral process in Georgia is not up to par.
Chris Riggall, press secretary to Cox, cited one DeKalb County voter who came to vote at 7 p.m. and didn’t cast his ballot until 11:25 p.m.
“When someone’s waiting in line for four hours, the system’s broken,” Riggall says. “Something needs to be fixed there.”
Government systems ought to be as up-to-date as private sector technology.
“We don’t do our banking the way we did 100 years ago. We don’t pay our bills the way we did 100 years ago. We don’t communicate the way we did 100 years ago,” Riggall says. “But we do, in some instances, vote the way we did 100 years ago.”
Cox proposes statewide, uniform voting machines to replace the various forms of voting still used in Georgia: Thomas Edison’s lever system, still used in 76 counties; the punchcard system, reviled in Palm Beach County and the choice of 17 Georgia counties; antiquated paper ballots, still lingering in two counties; and the more cutting-edge optical scanning machines, used in 64 counties.
Cox’s machines, at $1,500 to $4,500 each, would feature a touch-sensitive screen by which voters pick their candidates. Polling places could be at Kroger’s or the mall, for example. And voters could vote anywhere in the state, not just in their home county. A voter would just insert her “Smart Card” in the slot and up would pop the custom-made ballot, complete with school board, county commissioner, mayoral and city council candidates, among others.
Cox says uniform electronic voting could cost up to $200 million in Georgia but will likely cost less, with the expense split between county, state and federal government — an expense traditionally picked up by the county alone. Georgia’s 2,700 precincts would need an average of 10 machines each, at a total cost of between $40 million and $120 million, according to Riggall. That does not include the cost of installing the machines, training county employees to use them and fixing glitches that might arise.
Cox hopes to win approval from the General Assembly to fund both a 2001 pilot program in five to 10 cities and, dependent on the program’s success, a start-up budget for a third of Georgia’s counties in 2002. Other states, including North Carolina, already use the equipment in some counties. By 2002, Cox hopes that Congress will pass legislation that would offer matching funds for counties that have budgeted money for electronic voting equipment.
“Then we could fund another part of it the next year, and another part the third year, so that by the time we have the next presidential election we could have this in place all over the state,” Cox says. “And it wouldn’t be any significant drain on any single year’s budget, for the state or a county.”
Despite the cost, Cox has some ardent supporters. African-American legislators, who are keenly aware of voting rights, are among them.
“They’ll get my vote,” says Rep. Tyrone Brooks, D-Atlanta. “And I just hope there’s support in the assembly so that we can fund these initiatives and bring Georgia back to where we ought to be — where we should have been a long time ago.”
Gov. Roy Barnes has also expressed interest in voting reform, according to Cox.
“He’s kind of waiting for me to give him some ideas on what the alternatives are, what the costs would be for how we could responsibly move toward a uniform system,” she says. “He’s clearly not committed to anything. But he tells me he’s very open to exploring the options.”
Cox must must also consider whether the issue has staying power. That Georgia is paying as much attention as it is to voting reform is testament to the power of Florida’s persuasion, says state Republican Party chairman Clay. He says the voting reform, while popular now, could be out of fashion by spring.
“Six months from now, people are not going to talk about what happened in Florida,” Clay claims.
Riggall says the public, should it be sidetracked by some other scandal or dilemma, would be remiss to turn its back on voting reform — especially when Americans know more about election methodology than ever before.
“That enthusiasm may wane,” Riggall says. “Our hope is that it doesn’t. The problems that have arisen in this election could arise again, with the system we’ve got.”