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Georgia bill to strip QR codes from ballots would cost tens of millions of dollars

The price tag could reach $300 million, says a top state election official. The legislature has allocated $0 — and set a two-year deadline.

Two men wearing suits, one in the foreground speaking from a podium and one stands in focus in the background holding a carbonated drink.
Gabriel Sterling, chief operating officer of the Georgia secretary of state's office, at a briefing with Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger in 2022. Sterling says a bill that would strip machine-readable codes from ballots would cost the state tens of millions of dollars to update or replace its voting system. (Elijah Nouvelage / Getty Images)

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Update, May 13, 2024: Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp signed this bill, SB 189, on May 7 without releasing a statement. Any funding for this measure will need to be addressed by the legislature in future sessions.

Tucked inside a massive elections bill passed last month by Georgia’s legislature is a provision that requires the state to spend millions of dollars to overhaul the state’s existing voting system, or to purchase a new one before 2026.

Election officials and experts say it’s an impossible timeline, and that the vague language of the bill may prevent the use of electronic tabulators altogether. Lawmakers allocated no money for the change, which would remove computer-readable QR codes and other barcodes that the state’s voting system relies on to accurately tabulate ballots.

“We’re talking about an expense of about $25-to-$26 million, to about $300 million, depending on how you want to do it,” Gabe Sterling, the chief operating officer in the secretary of state’s office, told the House Governmental Affairs Committee on March 20, eight days before the bill passed the House. If lawmakers wanted to proceed, Sterling told them, they should write the legislation to make the changes contingent on appropriating enough money to pay for them, and move the effective date back to give election officials more time.

Lawmakers have already pushed the effective date back two years — from 2024 to 2026 — but did not make the change contingent on providing funding. So if the governor signs the bill now, it’s not clear where election officials will get the money.

The ban on computer-readable codes made headlines when the bill passed, but the cost — which legislators have known about for months — has not been previously reported.

The legislation would make the state’s current voting system, put in place in 2020 at a cost of more than $100 million, impossible for the state to use. Sterling says that if the governor signs it, Georgia will spend millions of dollars “to achieve absolutely nothing.”

And depending on how the secretary of state’s office chooses to interpret the coding provisions, the cost could spiral. Because the state’s current system is designed to read QR codes, the least costly fix requires the office to update every single piece of voting equipment in the state — about 40,000 pieces of hardware, each requiring about 25 minutes of individual attention — and purchase a limited amount of new hardware.

The more expensive option would mean purchasing an entirely new system capable of optical character recognition, a technology for scanning and interpreting individual letters. The options for that likely won’t be available in necessary quantities before 2026.

Sterling believes either avenue is likely to lead to a lawsuit. He said the unclear requirements would also put the state and counties at great risk of lawsuits.

“People who like this and people who don’t like this will sue us,” he said, because there is no consistent understanding of how the language should be enforced. “The words in the bill do not make sense.”

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp must sign or veto the bill by May 7.

QR codes ‘may be perfectly fine’

The provision about computer-readable codes is a small part of the 24-page elections bill, which has provisions ranging from chain-of-custody requirements for equipment to the creation of pilot programs for new voting technology. A veto would force the state legislature to try again on the package.

In a statement, Kemp spokesman Carter Chapman said that the governor is still reviewing the bill, and that his office would provide an update after taking action.

Election integrity activists have been fighting the use of QR codes on ballots nationwide, claiming without evidence that such codes could be used by malicious actors to swing elections. State Senate Ethics Committee Chairman Max Burns, the Sylvania Republican who sponsored the measure, said it would “create clarity” and allow voters to know the machine interpreted their votes the same way they do.

“It is technically possible to remove the QR code or any other encoded, non-human readable content and read the actual content of the ballot,” he said in January. “We’re gonna leave the details and the technical requirements up to the secretary of state as they work through the implementation of this.”

In another hearing that month, he said the scanning of human-readable text could be “integrated” into the state’s current system. While that’s technically possible, Sterling said, the process will be slow and expensive in ways the bill doesn’t account for.

House Speaker Jon Burns acknowledged at a January press conference that he had a limited understanding of the issue, but nonetheless said he believed the transition would be “easy.”

“If you understand how the QR code works exactly, I’d be glad to meet with you after this, and certainly you can help me,” he said. Pressed by reporters for evidence of flaws with the current system, he said that QR codes “may be perfectly fine” but that the public’s lack of confidence was reason enough to make the change.

That was a popular rationale for many who voted to pass the bill in the House. But prior to the vote a few weeks ago, state Rep. Saira Draper, a Democrat, said lawmakers were “justifying sloppy and rushed policy choices by saying we need to bring more confidence to our elections, when you know just as well as I do that there is a very vocal minority out there who will never be confident in the process so long as their candidates is not declared the winner.”

She compared the bill to “negotiating with terrorists.”

Lawmakers were warned of the risks

The relevant section of the bill bans the use of “a QR code, bar code, or similar coding” to count ballots. All counting, it says, must be done using human-readable text, even though no voting system currently exists that meets that requirement as written.

One system, from Texas-based Hart Intercivic, has such a feature, but the small company is unlikely to be able to produce enough machines to replace every scanner in Georgia in the next two years. And even those rely on computer programming: Scanners aren’t human beings, says Sterling. They have to be programmed to read English words and characters in place of codes.

Records show Sen. Burns and Speaker Burns (who aren’t related) and other legislators ignored warnings from the secretary of state’s office sent over several months, which described this change as “impossible” to implement and “a solution in search of a problem.” Neither lawmaker has responded to requests for comment.

Given the wording of the bill, counties may be prevented from using scanners at all, said Joseph Kirk, the election supervisor in Bartow County, a county of about 100,000 voters in northwest Georgia.

“A strict interpretation of the bill could force us to hand-count ballots, which is substantially less accurate than scanning them,” said Kirk. “I hope the legislature will work with Georgia’s election officials in the coming years to allow us to continue to provide accurate results as we move toward the next generation of voting technology as required by the bill.”

Other developed countries do hand counts, but U.S. elections typically have significantly more choices. And academic studies over the decades have found that hand-counting American elections is error prone, slow, and expensive.

In multiple letters and meetings with lawmakers over several months, the secretary of state’s staff offered proof that the underlying claims of QR code manipulation were being taken out of context or misinterpreted. Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger has suggested other options to audit the count. The state also already requires risk-limiting audits by law.

Jessica Huseman is Votebeat’s editorial director and is based in Dallas. Contact Jessica at jhuseman@votebeat.org.

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