Editorial: Voting system demo buoys confidence

Georgia is getting a 21st century voting system designed for ease of use by those born in the 20th century.


Voting angst has assailed the state on many fronts in recent years. Polling place changes, voter roll purges, absentee ballots, “exact match” standards — the list of challenges resembled the lengthy ballot voters wrestle with every other November.

The public’s biggest misgiving, though, involved the new voting machines. By a federal judge’s order, the state was tasked with overhauling the method by which every Georgian cast his or her vote. The touchscreen devices in use since 2002 were outdated and deemed a security risk. The state needed to either invest in new machines or go back to paper ballots.

The system decision was to impact every Georgia voter, not just those tripped up by the other aforementioned shortcomings. Once state leaders made clear their preference for a digital option, voter apprehension spiked.

Change makes people uncomfortable. Change involving technology can be downright frightening, particularly for those who didn’t grow up with AI-enhanced smart-everythings.

The beauty of the old machines was in their simplicity: insert a card in a slot, touch the box next to the names you want to vote for, touch the box to cast the ballot at the end, return the card to the poll worker.

If you had the intelligence — and attention span — to bubble in a paper ballot properly, you could work the electronic voting machine. The system was easy on poll workers, too.

Now comes a new machine and a new process. Actually, the next time voters go to the polls, they will be interacting with multiple new machines: a check-in tablet computer, a ballot-marking touch-screen device, and an optical scanner.

What’s more, the first 2020 election is March 24, and of the 33,100 new ballot-marking device-optical scanner combinations, only a few hundred have been rolled out. The Chatham County Elections Board has two on hand currently and doesn’t expect to receive more until late January. Training has been limited.

The situation is enough to give Pollyanna worry wrinkles.

Yet those who have used the new system offer reviews that would make Green Bay Quarterback Aaron Rodgers smile: R-E-L-A-X.

User-friendly tech

The new system is foolproof in every sense of the word.

Two Savannah Morning News staffers, including editorial board member Adam Van Brimmer, demoed the system during a recent conference for local and state elections officials staged at the Savannah Marriott Riverfront.

The sign-in process is now streamlined and fully digital. Voters simply hand their photo identification to a poll worker, who scans the ID into a tablet using the device’s camera. The voter then confirms his or her information with the touch of the tablet’s screen.

Then it’s on to the ballot-marking device, which closely resembles the machines Georgians have used since 2002. It is a touch-screen and presents ballots in a familiar, sequential manner. The so-called BMDs do incorporate some smart features, asking the user for confirmation of selections — or non-selections — during the process.

Once the voter finishes with his or her choices, the machine produces a receipt-like ballot for review. Once selections are confirmed, the voter slides the printout into the scanner.

This is the step in the process where anybody who has used a credit card reader or ATM machine feared a breakdown. Which way does the paper go in? Which side up? Is it going to spit it back out like a slightly wrinkled dollar from a finicky vending machine?

The scanner is designed to read the ballot no matter how it is inserted in the slot. Once inside, a digital scan is logged, officially casting the vote, and the printout drops into a locked box for easy audit later.

That’s it. Time to go collect one of those peachy stickers.

The new system was piloted in a handful of Georgia counties during the November municipal elections. The error rate was 0.164%. A month later, in runoff elections in two of those pilot counties, the machines performed flawlessly, with zero errors.

An engineer by trade, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger called the results “tremendous.”

So take heart, Georgia voters, and know there’s nothing to fear about navigating the new voting system.

Editorial: Gov. Kemp enhancing state’s business climate

Candidate Brian Kemp, for all his polarizing campaign rhetoric, based his gubernatorial run on making Georgia the best state for small business.

Nearly a year after taking office, and standing before Savannah’s small business community at the Savannah Area Chamber of Commerce’s annual meeting, Governor Kemp reiterated that pledge on Wednesday.

And reminded us how he has delivered.

Kemp pointed to the 73,000 jobs added in the state in 2019. He talked about Savannah attracting Plastic Express, which built a $172 million facility in Pooler this year and is on track to become a top-five user of Savannah’s port. He talked about how more than 70% of new businesses in Georgia are located outside of metro Atlanta.

“We’re showing we can build anything for anybody located anywhere right here in Georgia,” he said.

Kemp has maintained his business-first focus during his gubernatorial honeymoon. He’s engaged in a Georgia Made tour, visiting cities and small communities alike across the state. And he’s making the local chamber of commerce rounds — he attended the Albany chamber’s annual meeting on Tuesday ahead of his trip to Savannah.

Kemp is a couple weeks shy of his first anniversary as governor. The Georgia General Assembly opens its 2020 session on Jan. 13, and Kemp will submit his second state budget in the days following.

His House and Senate floor leaders will no doubt file several bills addressing small business and state regulatory reforms throughout the session. Kemp created several commissions earlier this year to identify inefficiencies, and most have submitted reports and made recommendations.

The Savannah community is better for Gov. Kemp’s efforts to improve the state’s small business climate. As he enters his second year, we support him in that work.

Rep. Jesse Petrea column: Legislators neutral on Skidaway incorporation issue

There has been much discussion recently over the proposal to incorporate Skidaway Island as its own city as residents prepare to vote on the issue March 19. In order for such a vote to take place, state law had to be passed. According to long established precedent in Georgia, when there is a grassroots movement to pursue the incorporation of an area, it is to be put to a referendum of the people. We allowed that.

However, it is important for our citizens to understand that neither Sen. Ben Watson nor myself have any reason or intention to take a side in this decision. We have been neutral since this movement began to pursue incorporation and remain neutral today.

As legislators who believe the people as a whole have the right to determine self-government, we felt obligated to introduce the bill that gave the people of Skidaway Island the right to make this decision through referendum. Early voting is now underway, and at 7 p.m. on March 19 we will know what the people have decided.

We do want all citizens of Chatham County to understand that the legislation we passed is one that would lower and not raise taxes. We insisted on that.

The bill was originally introduced in 2017 and was passed in 2018 and again in 2019. This followed a 2016 study done and financed by The Landings Association which found the idea to be workable. Sen. Watson and I began hearing from citizens in overwhelming numbers asking for the opportunity to vote on incorporation. We participated in multiple town hall meetings with huge attendance and they signaled strong support for the opportunity to vote on the issue. Further, we received formal requests from each neighborhood association board on the island as well. Our concern was not for how they wanted to vote but did they want the opportunity to vote.

That said, we know there are a large number of people who do not want to create a city and would rather let Skidaway Island remain under the leadership of the Chatham County Commission. All residents should go to the polls on March 19 or before and cast their ballots.

The good news is that whether or not Skidaway Island incorporates, the island community will be just fine. It will still be a great place with some of the most philanthropic citizens in our state and will continue to be one of the most beautiful islands in Georgia. And, after 20 years of discussion, the issue will finally be put to rest.

Rep. Jesse Petrea represents District 166 in the Georgia House of Representatives. His district includes all of Skidaway Island.

Editorial: Tax revenue ramifications cloud incorporation debate

Editor’s note: This editorial is the first in series of pieces examining the issues involved with incorporation.

Fear and loathing frame the local incorporation debates.

But at the ballot box, Americans vote their wallets. The decision on cityhood, be it in two weeks on Skidaway Island or in the years to come elsewhere in Chatham County, comes down to costs to residents.

Millage rates. Exemptions. Sales tax distributions. Fees.

Funding a municipality

Funding municipal operations is foremost among the complexities surrounding incorporation.

Cities, large and small, rely on revenue to serve residents. And the potential revenue sources — taxes and fees — for new municipalities are grossly misunderstood.

Here in Georgia, municipalities rely primarily on property taxes and penny sales taxes for revenue. For example, Skidaway is projected to collect 80 percent of its annual revenue from a combination of real estate and sales taxes, according to a November 2016 feasibility study on Skidaway incorporation conducted by the Georgia State University Center for State and Local Finance.

Real estate tax proceeds for proposed new municipalities are easily forecast, especially in Chatham County, where a special homestead exemption establishes a static value for most residential properties. Charters for proposed cities can mandate that homeowners keep this exemption at its established value — as is the case with Skidaway.

This value multiplied by the millage rate determines the real estate tax bill. Only a significant millage change would lead to wild swings in real estate tax bills for those property owners moving from unincorporated to municipal status.

In Skidaway’s case, the millage rate would decrease, at least initially, from 4.9 mills to 4.13 mills, equal to $77 per $100,000 in value. Additionally, residents would not pay the $85 fee they currently pay the county for yard waste and bulk waste collection.

Sales tax squabbles

Much less predictable is the penny sales tax distributions to municipalities.

Chatham County levies a 3 percent tax on the sale of most goods and services. One of those pennies, the Local Option Sales Tax or LOST, can be spent on government operations.

LOST money is typically the second largest revenue source for municipal general funds. However, calculating a city’s LOST share is not as simple as looking at the pennies collected at businesses within the corporation limits.

LOST distribution is based on eight different criteria and portions are negotiated among Chatham County and the local municipalities, including the city of Savannah, once every 10 years.

These negotiations have proved unpredictable. The last time, LOST talks took nine months to resolve and ended up in court. Savannah saw its share cut 10 percent. Chatham County saw a 5 percent increase, but agreed to shoulder more jail-related expenses.

Among the other municipalities, Pooler and Port Wentworth received bigger shares while Garden City got less, largely due to population shifts. The other small cities saw little or no change.

How much a new municipality would receive in the next LOST negotiations, coming in 2021, is a guessing game.

Covering shortfalls

Georgia State’s feasibility study based its LOST projection on a per capita basis. However, this runs contrary to Georgia’s distribution guidelines, which specifically state that population is not to be more heavily weighted.

What’s more, Skidaway’s projected LOST proceeds, per the feasibility study, constitute 37 percent of total revenue. Statewide, LOST monies make up just 16 percent of general fund revenues, on average.

Should Skidaway or any new municipality not receive its projected share of LOST funding, the new government would have to find those budget dollars elsewhere. This would most likely impact the budget surplus most proposed municipalities project in feasibility studies.

In Skidaway’s case, the surplus totals more than $1.8 million per year, money earmarked — wisely — for a rainy-day reserve.

Cityhood comes with a range of tax revenue ramifications. Residents would do well to consider them as they consider incorporation.

Rep. Bill Hitchens column: Legislature moving ahead on new voting machines

The right to vote is one of the most valuable rights we have as Americans. Voting is the cornerstone of our democratic system and an integral part of what makes our nation great.

This legislative session, and most recently as this past week, our state’s 17-year-old voting system has been the issue of much debate in the Georgia General Assembly. Currently, Georgia is one of only four states in the nation that relies solely on electronic voting machines without a verifiable paper ballot. And regardless of your political affiliation, we can all agree that fair elections are vital to the integrity of our democratic system. We have the responsibility to do all that we can to ensure that ballots can’t be tampered with and elections take place without a cloud of uncertainty. As the nation that is the beacon of hope for all that the democratic process represents, it’s important that we get this right, not only for our citizens, but in the eyes of the watching world.

A few days ago, the Secure, Accessible & Fair Elections (SAFE) Commission recommended a new voting system with touchscreens and printers. The commission brought several voting machines to the floor of the House of Representatives, so we could see the options first-hand and make an informed decision about which option is best. The machine that is recommended is similar to the ones currently in use, in that a voter would touch the screen to cast their vote, but then the machine would print out the voter’s results and the voter could then read over it to make sure they didn’t make a mistake while voting. Once the voter is certain their vote is accurate, they will then feed the paper copy into an optical scanner where the paper copy is stored into a locked bin at the bottom of the voting machine. If the voter made a mistake while voting, they would take the printed copy to the poll worker and be able to re-cast their vote. Once the voter has checked their ballot to make sure it reflects their accurate vote, the printed ballot is fed into a bin that can only be opened by a poll worker and is a permanent, physical record in the event of a re-count.

I served more than 40 years in law enforcement and as a young state trooper, I worked at a poll on election night and saw where there were problems with paper ballots when a person’s name couldn’t be read or a vote wasn’t filled in just right, causing confusion. I’m convinced this is the best solution because of the printed ballot that’s secured within the voting machine.

This new voting machine is being considered in the House under House Bill 316 and the Senate has already passed a similar version of the bill. I’m convinced that a paper record of an electronically cast vote is the best way we can secure our elections. It’s my hope that this bill will pass our legislature and these voting machines will be in place for our elections in November. We must do everything we can to reassure the citizens of Georgia that their vote matters, our elections are safeguarded, and we still have the best democratic system in the world.

Rep. Bill Hitchens is a Republican who represents District 161, which includes Pooler, Port Wentworth and Rincon. He is in his fourth term in the Georgia House of Representatives.

Rep. Carl Gilliard column: Leaders stand united against drilling, seismic testing

All too often when people hear about our government, the first thing that comes to mind is dissention, posturing, and a great divide between our political parties. But in recent weeks, state legislators on both sides of the aisle came together in a united front on the issue of offshore drilling, with strong support from Gov. Brian Kemp.

We stood together at the Georgia Capitol, legislators representing both coastal and inland Georgia, from all walks of life and sometimes differing political views, joined together on this important issue. During this show of support, we sent a message to Washington: we do not want offshore drilling in Georgia. We will not risk our beautiful, vibrant coastline with its saltmarshes that lead to a thriving ocean, a coastline that supports more than 20,000 jobs and contributes more than a billion dollars to the economy. This issue is clearly a priority for our state.

Emboldened with the belief that our waterways are worth keeping safe from potential drilling accidents like the one that devastated more than 600 miles of the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, on Jan. 28 I introduced House Resolution 48, The Resolution to Oppose Offshore Oil & Gas Exploration, which discourages seismic testing and oil and gas drilling off Georgia’s coast. The bill has been assigned to the House Natural Resources and the Environment Committee and I believe this is one of our defining moments as we strive to protect Georgia’s environment and the thousands of jobs that come from our waterways.

I believe we should be just as opposed to seismic testing and other energy exploration. Experts say sound waves used to find oil have such negative effects on fish and other marine mammals that they can become displaced from their habitats or even injured.

I’m urging every citizen of Georgia to call your legislator and ask them to stand with Georgia against offshore drilling and seismic testing. Standing against offshore drilling means you stand with the many businesses and people who work in jobs supported by our coastline. You’re standing with the restaurants that serve our delicious local seafood, the dolphin tour operator, the fisherman and the hotel owner on Tybee Island, among many others. To stand against offshore drilling means you stand against the possibility of an accident that can dump millions of barrels of oil into our life-giving wetlands. Standing against offshore drilling means you care not only about the natural beauty of our coastline but all the benefits that we reap from it. The 2010 BP oil spill affected beaches and wetlands from Texas all the way to Florida, and these communities are still feeling devastating economic and environmental consequences today.

I urge you to stand with a bipartisan group of legislators who value our environment and the economic benefits that we enjoy from it. Join us by opposing offshore drilling and make your voice known today. Please support HR 48 and together we can move Georgia forward.

Rep. Carl Gilliard is a Democrat who represents District 162, which includes Garden City. He is in his third term in the Georgia House of Representatives.

Rep. Mickey Stephens column: Support push for infrastructure improvements at Savannah State

It seems like yesterday, but it was quite a few years ago when I was a student at Savannah State University, eager to learn, make new friends, and become involved in campus activities. I was proud to be part of Savannah State’s rich history then, and I’m proud to be an alumnus now. SSU is the oldest historically black public college in the state of Georgia and the oldest institution of higher learning in Savannah. The campus has become even more beautiful over time, the oak trees mature and majestic, the architecture historic and graceful, and the students just as enthusiastic about their future now as we were then.

Savannah State has become known for its groundbreaking research. SSU sent cutting-edge genetic material from campus laboratories to the International Space Station in 2014. In 2016, Savannah State earned two patents: one allows for the collection and harvest of organic material necessary for long-distance space travel, the other is a new chemical that may be used for treating Alzheimer’s, ALS and dementia.

Savannah State can also boast as being the first university in Georgia to offer a bachelor’s degree in homeland security and emergency management and the second in the state to offer a bachelor’s degree in forensic science.

But with this long history, distinction, and tradition comes the need for important upgrades to safeguard future learning and success. Savannah State was founded in 1890, and some of the canals and drainage pipes on campus are nearly 100 years old. In order to protect infrastructure, SSU is proposing a $4.1 million upgrade to enhance drainage and safeguard electrical lines, converting existing overhead power lines to underground electrical systems. These improvements will provide a safer environment for students, faculty, and visitors, repair eroded banks and protect building foundations. With continued commitment to protecting our natural resources, these proposed improvements will also ensure storm water reaches local waterways without pollution, something we can all applaud.

This legislative session, I’ll work with the Chatham delegation to advocate for appropriations in the Fiscal Year 2020 budget to fund these essential improvements. In addition, I’ll communicate the necessity of these projects with our legislative leaders, including Gov. Kemp, to foster their support.

As a former educator, I also consider Beach Institute an important learning institution and historic gem in our community. As the first official school for African-American students in Savannah, Beach Institute currently serves as the cultural center for African-American arts, history and historic preservation. Built in the late 1860s, the building is in dire need of repairs and renovations to ensure it remains a beacon of learning for years to come.

I’ll give my full support to an appropriations request of $1.7 million dollars for the necessary improvements and will work with my colleagues to ensure this expenditure is included in the state’s FY 2020 budget. In addition, the King-Tisdell Cottage, considered an arm of the Beach Institute cultural arts center, is also in need of vital repairs, and I will strongly support the foundation’s $150,000 appropriations request so that this important site is preserved for generations to come.

We live in a city with a wide range of educational opportunities, steeped in history with an eye on the future. These are just two areas of learning distinction that should receive state funding. I’ll strongly support their budget requests and encourage my colleagues in the Georgia General Assembly to do the same.

Rep. Mickey Stephens is a Democrat who represents District 165, which includes portions of Savannah’s east side and south side. He is in his sixth term in the Georgia House of Representatives.

Rep. Ron Stephens column: Road projects to alleviate ‘major headaches’ in Richmond Hill

District 164 (Savannah), Republican

Our community is well aware of the economic engine that is the Georgia Ports Authority. But what most people don’t know is that for the better part of 20 years, our roads and highways that feed into the port never made the governor’s priority list.

That changed two years ago, when I joined with leaders from Bryan County to meet with then-Gov. Nathan Deal and plead the case for road improvements throughout Richmond Hill, which are a key ingredient for our thriving port system. It was after this meeting that Richmond Hill’s infrastructure was quickly moved to the top of the priority list as the governor saw the vital link between improved infrastructure and economic growth.

In addition to being positioned as an artery that flows trucks and rail cars into the port, Richmond Hill is steeped in history, natural beauty, and is known as a great place to raise a family. Studies show the steady population growth will continue over the next several years, as more people discover this gem of a community.

The Port of Savannah is predicting a steady increase in growth as well, with container vessels having grown to mammoth size and greatly increasing container capacity. To support these giant vessels, state officials are expressing support for a new bridge with a higher bridge span, while harbor deepening is underway. Within the next decade, port officials expect Savannah’s capacity for handling containers to increase from 5.5 million units annually to 8 million.

With the support of Georgia Department of Transportation Board Chairman Ann Purcell and DOT Planning Director Jay Roberts, I’m pleased to report there is a plan in place for infrastructure improvements. The DOT is currently working on projects at the Interstate 95/U.S. 17 interchange and the I–95/Georgia 144 interchange with improvements underway at the loop ramp and lanes in the area. These projects are anticipated to spur immediate development and change travel patterns in the region.

If you’ve driven through Richmond Hill during rush hour recently, you know that Georgia 144 is a major artery — and contributes to major headaches — at peak times. This important highway connects the southern end of Bryan County to I–95 and U.S. 17 and is used by truckers, tourists, commuters, and visitors alike. The gridlock will soon be alleviated, though, as Georgia 144 is planned to be widened by Georgia DOT from the terminus of the existing four-lane section south to Belfast River Road. This project has been designed, right–of–way acquisition is ongoing, and it is scheduled for some time next year. In addition, a new interchange on I-95 is scheduled to be constructed at Belfast Keller Road. The project is currently in the design stages and will be built within the next five years.

As we experience growth, these projects are steps in the right direction for a better Georgia that has the infrastructure in place to enhance our economic development and improve the lives of those who travel our highways. I was pleased to collaborate with Bryan County leaders to help make this a reality and look forward to seeing the benefits for our great community.

Rep. Ron Stephens is a Republican who represents District 164, which includes southwestern Chatham County and parts of Bryan and Liberty counties. He is in his 12th term in the Georgia House of Representatives.

Rep. J. Craig Gordon column: Healthcare reform goes beyond insurance coverage issues

This legislative session, the Georgia General Assembly will deliberate about a wide variety of issues, but I believe one of the most pressing needs of our state is healthcare. In addition to serving in the legislature, I oversee a home healthcare company with locations in Savannah, Macon, Albany and Columbus which allows me to see firsthand the great shortage of healthcare providers across our state, particularly in rural areas.

As a member of the Health and Human Services Committee in the State House, I have the opportunity to review healthcare legislation as it is first presented and contribute to the debate regarding its practicality and efficacy. I was greatly encouraged that the committee voted unanimously this past Wednesday in favor of House Bill 928 which, if passed, will extend the HOPE scholarship time limit after receiving a high school diploma or GED from seven to 15 years. Conditions for the HOPE scholarship have been in place for about seven years, with the time limit set by legislators as a way of cutting costs after the 2008 recession. As one of the bill’s strong supporters, I recognize this extension as a way of helping to fill the need for more physicians and nurses.

The demand is so prevalent that a recent report by The National Center for Health Workforce Analysis reveals our state is moving toward having the sixth-highest gap nationwide between the number of nurses available and the number that will be needed by 2030. And the shortage of physicians is just as dire, especially in rural areas, with some counties having no doctor whatsoever.

As college debt continues to be a major concern for many Georgians, this bill will help young professionals who had to postpone their education for various reasons, and eliminate, or at least alleviate, that burdensome debt. We’re still in the early stages of the session, but I believe HB 928 is one of the most beneficial pieces of legislation coming out of the 2019 General Assembly that could have a positive effect on our state for generations to come.

Continuing with the subject of healthcare, I strongly support House Bill 17 that bans smoking in cars while a child under the age of 13 is present. Second-hand smoke is dangerous to the health of children, containing more than 4,000 chemicals of which 50 are related to cancer. Second-hand smoke is also attributed to developmental delays in children and upper respiratory issues that often lead to hospital visits. I believe that this is common sense legislation that protects our children and shows that our state cares about their health and their future.

To lower healthcare costs for women, I’ve co-sponsored House Bill 8, which would eliminate taxes on feminine menstrual products. Products such as insulin syringes and hearing aids are already tax-free and it only seems fair that feminine products, considered a medical necessity by many, should be tax-free also. It is my hope that my colleagues will agree with me and pass this bill.

The legislation I’ve outlined are all positive steps toward helping Georgians live healthier lives without burdensome costs. It’s a privilege to work with my colleagues in the Georgia General Assembly and to represent our great community under the gold dome.

Rep. J. Craig Gordon is a Democrat who represents District 163, which includes part of downtown and much of Savannah’s westside. He is in his seventh term in the Georgia House of Representatives.