ATLANTA — Just over half of Georgia voters believe the nation is prepared to keep this year's presidential election safe and secure, according to a poll by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution conducted two months before the state's primary.
The poll also shows nearly 50 percent of voters were unaware that Georgia will be using new voting machines that print out paper ballots during the March 24 presidential primary.
But among those who had heard about the switch to new election equipment, 85 percent expressed some degree of confidence that it will accurately record election results. Only voters who had heard about the new voting system were asked the poll question about their confidence in it.
The AJC survey asked 1,025 Georgia registered voters about election security and accuracy amid concerns about voter disenfranchisement and foreign meddling. The survey was conducted from Jan. 6 to Jan. 15 by the University of Georgia's School of Public and International Affairs and has a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points.
When voters head to the polls in March, they will make their choices on touchscreens that are similar to those in use since 2002. The new touchscreens will be connected to printers that will create a paper ballot. Voters will then be able to review and change their selections before inserting their ballots into scanning machines for tabulation.
Of those who knew about Georgia's new voting system, 49 percent of those surveyed said they were confident or very confident in the system, while an additional 36 percent said they were somewhat confident. About 11 percent said they weren't at all confident.
Confidence in election preparedness and voting systems broke down along racial and political party lines. Black voters and Democrats were more skeptical of elections than white voters and Republicans.
"I'm not confident that it will be safe and secure, and that's unfortunate," said Vivian Green of Riverdale, 68, who worked at a community college. "Voter suppression, access to voting polls, technology or lack of it, and of course the interference from other countries — all of those things make me a little bit nervous."
Ashley Heath, a 30-year-old from Jasper, said the addition of a paper ballot to Georgia's voting process increases her faith in it.
"I like the idea better, to be able to review everything before it's turned in," said Heath, who works in commercial construction accounting.
Election officials are preparing for record turnout this November. Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger has said more than 5 million voters will likely participate. That would be a sharp increase from the 3.9 million ballots cast in the 2018 race for governor and 4.1 million in the 2016 presidential contest.
The new machines will replace Georgia's 17-year-old electronic voting system, which lacked a paper ballot.
Just 31 percent of Democrats and 35 percent of black voters said they were confident or very confident in the voting system. Those numbers contrast with 69 percent of Republicans and 48 percent of white voters who said they were confident or very confident.
Black voters and Democrats were also more likely to believe that the United States is unprepared to safeguard the presidential election.
"It's all going to be tainted and manipulated in some kind of way. I don't have any faith in it," said Ashley Bruce, a 35-year-old patient care technician from Covington. "Even a paper ballot, that can be forged. I really have lost confidence. I hate to be a negative Nancy, but it's the way the government is going."
But Vincent Mudrak, a 73-year-old retiree in Troup County, said the addition of a paper trail increases his trust in elections, but he's concerned about fraud.
"The voting machines are good, especially if they're backed up with a paper trail," said Mudrak, who worked for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "My real concern is, are actual U.S. citizens voting, or are people voting once or twice or three times?"
Election fraud is rare in Georgia, and election officials say the state's photo ID law and updated voter registration lists ensure that only legitimate voters can cast ballots.
The AJC's poll indicates that many voters remain distrustful of elections as the state is switching to the new voting system.
State and local election officials say they're working to educate voters before the presidential primary, and many precincts are preparing to provide extra staff to answer questions and help voters through the process.