Focus On Atlanta Georgia Leads The E-Government Revolution

Thursday, April 1, 2004 - 01:00

The Editor interviews The Honorable Cathy Cox, Secretary of State, Georgia.

Editor:Please tell our readers how Georgia is advancing the e-government revolution.

Cox: The Georgia Secretary of State's Office strives to offer Georgians a website that is useful and well organized while providing the highest level of customer service and information to businesses and individuals. The website offers extensive information about the operations and services of the agency's five operating divisions and supports online transactions for corporate name registrations and online renewal of professional licenses.Our website is a leader in governmental e-commerce, generating more than $8.3 million a year agency-wide in online transactions. Many of these financial transactions occur on our Corporations website. In 2000, the Georgia Corporations Division became the first in the nation to offer corporate registrants the option to renew online. Since this service was first offered on our website, we have seen a substantial increase in the number of online corporate renewals each year.

The website also offers important resources for consumers.In Georgia, certain professions dealing with public health are required to register with the Office of Secretary of State. Our website offers a searchable database which allows Georgians to verify that their dentists, pharmacists and veterinarians are licensed and have not received disciplinary sanctions. If Georgians receive solicitations from charitable organizations, they can simply access our Securities Division webpage to confirm that the charity is registered and check the organization's financial information.

As Georgia's Chief Elections Official, I want to ensure that all Georgians exercise their right to vote, and our website provides several features to help citizens prepare for Election Day. The website offers a downloadable voter registration form and special poll locator service so that voters can verify their registration and poll location before going to vote. The website includes election dates, an absentee ballot request form, and a directory of county elections officials. Individuals can also view electronically filed campaign disclosure reports to see who has contributed money to a candidate's election bid.

Our website also provides important educational information about the history and government in our state. An online tour of the Georgia Capitol features hundreds of photos and graphic images, extensive text descriptions of Capitol features and facts and panoramic views of important rooms and spaces throughout the building. This feature gives students the opportunity to experience the State Capitol if their school can't make the trip to Atlanta.The website also provides teachers with lesson plans and resources from the State Archives to use in the classroom.

Our office is fortunate to have an innovative and experienced Information Technology staff that has implemented a user-friendly website. Their exceptional work has been recognized by two national awards, the Council of State Governments' Eagle E-Government Award and the Center for Digital Government's Best State Constitutional Officer Site.

Editor:What attracts a business to incorporate in Georgia?

Cox: Recently released census figures show that Georgia is the fourth fastest growing state in the nation, with the largest growth among individuals 44 and younger. This age group is relocating to Georgia to take advantage of a variety of career opportunities and a successful job market. Many corporations are attracted to Georgia because of the state's strong economy and the growth in an educated and eager job force. Georgia's infrastructure is agreeable to many corporations, and the state boasts an expert legal community which is necessary to support a successful corporation.

As more corporations locate to Georgia and interact with the Corporations Division, our staff is prepared to make the incorporation process as "user-friendly" as possible. They are dedicated to efficiently handling the large volume of calls and requests received by the Division.

Editor:How does Georgia's process for filing incorporation, mergers, dissolution, registration of agents and other corporate records compare with other states?

Cox: Most states, including Georgia, have adopted some version of the Model Business Corporation Code, so the procedures generally do not differ greatly from state to state.Georgia's requirements are less stringent in some instances which could make the state more attractive to an applicant. For example, Georgia is one of only a few states that does not require consent to the appointment of a registered agent. The State Bar of Georgia determined it is sufficient that a corporation that appoints an agent without consent from the agent "does so at its own peril." Therefore, agent changes avoid a layer of bureaucracy. No state has simpler filing requirements for articles of incorporation or articles of organization for an LLC. With regard to filing fees to establish an entity, Georgia's $100 fee is below the national average. Its merger, dissolution and amendment fee of $20 is well below the national average.

Editor: Your office plays a crucial role in ensuring fair elections for all Georgians. Please give our readers a few examples of your current initiative.

Cox: After the 2000 Presidential Election recount, it was obvious to election officials in Georgia that problems with voting equipment were not simply isolated to Florida. Just like in Florida, Georgia used several different voting methods including the infamous punch cards. And like Florida, counties in Georgia used different methods of counting votes, with varying levels of accuracy. We conducted an intense review of votes cast in the presidential race in our state and found that over 94,000 ballots in Georgia did not record a vote for president (what we call undervotes). Our state had a greater number of undervotes than Florida!

After an in-depth analysis of the accuracy and accessibility of our state's voting equipment, Georgia's Governor and the General Assembly approved $54 million in state funding to acquire and deploy a new voting system for the 2002 General Election. The state purchased electronic touch screen voting machines for all 159 Georgia counties, and conducted an extensive voter education campaign to prepare citizens to use the new equipment. After the 2002 General Election using touch screen equipment, the undervote rate dropped dramatically from 3.5 percent in 2000 to 0.87 percent in 2002.

The touch screen equipment not only improved the accuracy of Georgia's elections, it also made voting more accessible to all citizens. For the first time ever, blind and visually impaired Georgians were able to cast their ballots independently and without assistance using headphones, a key pad and voice-guided audio ballot.

And Georgians love the touch screen machines!A recent poll conducted by the University of Georgia's Carl Vinson Institute of Government found that a majority of Georgians think that the touch screen voting equipment is more accurate and easy to use.

Editor:Please tell our readers about your trademark web site. How many trademark holders have registered their marks with the office of the Secretary of State?

Cox: There are approximately 10,000 active state trademark/service mark registrations with the Secretary of State. The website allows a user to search for registered marks by mark name, owner name or key word included in the description of the mark application forms which can be downloaded from the site.

Editor:Please tell our readers about the securities and business regulation functions of your office.

Cox: As Secretary of State and Georgia's Commissioner of Securities, I am responsible for registering and regulating securities offerings, securities firms, securities salespeople, investment advisers, charities, paid solicitors, cemeteries, and pre-need funeral service/merchandise dealers.

As the chief investment regulator in Georgia, I have been given an exciting opportunity this year to develop an extensive investor education program for our state.Georgia, along with 49 other states, last year entered into a comprehensive "global settlement" of legal claims against America's largest investment firms in connection with our investigation into conflicts in how they went about evaluating and recommending stocks.Each of the nine firms paid to Georgia the maximum civil penalties allowed by law.In fact, it was the largest settlement of its kind ever reached in Georgia - almost $5 million.

The firms also agreed to pay additional money to the Investor Protection Trust, an independent charitable trust that is overseen by state securities regulators.Under the terms of the settlements, these funds are to be dedicated solely to carry out investor education efforts in Georgia.For the first time in our state's history the Secretary of State's office has the financial resources to inform and educate Georgians about the need to invest, and also the need to be prudent and wise in examining investment opportunities.

Our office is joining with other public officials, law enforcement officers, community organizations, and experts in the investment and finance industry to hold nine free investor education seminars throughout the state. The seminars offer breakout sessions on a variety of financial topics, and participants can attend the presentations that best fit their needs. In addition to the seminars, the investment project will also provide a speakers bureau, public service announcements, investor alerts, and investor education programs coordinated with schools, universities and civic organizations. Public education is essential, and there is no greater priority for our office than to improve Georgians' understanding of scams and investment opportunities they are presented with in the marketplace.