Georgia’s new $104 million election system got its first test drive this year, first in the spring during primary season and now in November, for Election Day.
But Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger declared Wednesday that election officials should ignore the machines and recount by hand all of the state’s 5 million ballots to certify the results that the machines have shown: former Vice President Joe Biden has beat President Donald Trump.
Raffensperger says his decision should alleviate the dramatic — and unfounded — claims being made by state and national Republican Party leaders that the presidential vote in Georgia has been marred by fraud. It also will fulfill a state mandate that the election be audited.
But the order that all 159 counties need to complete a costly and complicated exercise is controversial. Some Georgia Democrats see the task as less about ensuring election integrity more about a lack of integrity among Republicans who have coddled President’s Trump belief that his loss was manufactured and not the result of the popular will.
“Georgia voters decided. Donald Trump cannot overturn the will of Georgia voters,” the voting rights group Fair Fight tweeted. “Donald Trump is delaying the inevitable. He lost, and he knows it.”
The painstaking process could open more potential to mistakes, according to outside election experts. Or it could burnish Georgia’s tarnished image as a champion for a fair vote.
The only insight that Georgians have about the hand recount system is the experience earlier this summer in Chatham County, the only one of Georgia’s 159 counties that has tested it firsthand.
A legal challenge during the Democratic Party primary for State District 163 triggered a hand recount in that tight race. The procedure took five 8-hour days for four teams of four people to count the 5,337 votes. The end result showed the same winner as the first tally.
Chatham County Board of Elections had no immediate response to Raffensperger’s order, except to confirm that they would comply and that they are continuing their other obligation of certifying the results from the county. They were expecting to be trained on Thursday about the procedures.
“As far as I know they are still working on the details of the plan,” said Russell Bridges, the elections supervisor for the county.
His team now must recount 133,589 votes cast in the Nov. 3 presidential election. Raffensperger has set a Nov. 20 deadline for the recount results from each county.
Too close to call, but lots of noise
Although a week has passed since Election Day, no news organizations or independent pollster has called the Georgia race despite the fact that Biden’s lead gets larger with more batches of ballots counted each day. Raffensperger said over the weekend that few if any legal ballots remained outstanding, but, citing procedures and processes, he too has not declared a winner.
In the vacuum of information, the White House, national and state Republicans who are close to Trump have spent the last three days shouting accusations, without any evidence, that the presidential vote in Georgia has been marred by fraud.
Politicians leading the charge include Senators Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, both of whom are headed to a runoff in January, as well as Rep. Buddy Carter, R-Savannah, and the other congressional Republicans elected on Nov. 3
Carter, who won re-election by a margin of almost 17 percentage points, has not raised questions about his vote totals. He previously told The Current that Georgians can trust the voting system. Perdue and Loeffler have not raised questions about their election results either.
Biden leads Trump by about 14,000 votes, around the same margin of victory he has in Arizona, a state that has been called in his favor.
Obligation to audit
Raffensperger, who is a known Trump supporter, has consistently walked a fine line between defending the integrity of the election system he oversees and the pressure from his party to back the president. Wednesday’s announcement, he said, was not in response to this partisanship, but instead part of the state’s obligation to audit results in close races.
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“We are doing this because really this is what makes the most sense,” Raffensperger told reporters. “With the national significance of this race and the closeness of this race. We have to run a statewide audit. This is the race that makes the most sense logically. And we’ll be following the process on that.”
Georgia’s election law allows for two kinds of recounts, a machine-based count and a hand count. Raffensperger has bypassed the electronic version, however.
What’s unclear is who is going to pay for the presidential recount – and how much it will cost the state. The counts must be completed by Nov. 20, giving county officials less than 10 days to work out staffing and secure workplaces for the paper tallies to be conducted.
Chatham County: from machines to tic marks
Chatham County has a team of highly experienced election officials. But they were pushed to the limit over the summer in managing the state’s new electronic voting systems and the parameters of the hand recount.
For five days over the summer, elections officials hand tallied each of the more than 5,300 ballots cast in the runoff for State District 163 after which the two competitors, Derrick Mallow and Anne Allen Westbrook, were separated by 20 votes.
Westbrook filed a petition for injunctive relief to require a manual recount, and the process was both time-consuming and arduous.
With all the new vote-counting technology, the final tally for the House District 163 Democrat nominee came down to log sheets of hand-drawn tic marks.
Murem Sharpe, who worked on Anne Allen Westbrook’s campaign, was a counter for the court-ordered hand recount. She called the process “messy.”
She was part of a team of four people for the Westbrook-Mallow hand recount and represented Westbrook’s campaign for 3 ½ days of the 5 day recount.
“There were two poll workers at the end of a long table, one person representing Anne Westbrook and one representing Derek Mallow,” Sharpe said.
The representative of the candidates received ballots from the first poll worker. “We would look at the ballot and say the name (chosen) out loud and then hand it to the poll worker at the end of the table…we never disagreed, by the way.”
The worker at the end of the table who had a log sheet would put tic marks on a hand log sheet and put the ballot in a stack. “The tic marks were visually added — there were no calculators in the process — and that became the vote,” Sharpe said. (See the log sheets here.)
She said the ballots were not checked by machines after the hand count, but the total number of tic marks had to match the total number of ballots in each batch before they could move to the next.
Ballots were grouped by precincts in stacks of 50 and an odd stack for ballots left. The individual stacks were bound by rubber bands and had log sheets on them.
Sharpe said poll workers were trained, but there were no common written steps to follow in the process written or posted at each table.
Fatigue as a factor
“Training was good but people had to sub in and out,” Sharpe said. And, fatigue became a factor as the counts wore on. Some poll workers assigned to the tables were there for the entire five-day recount without more than basic breaks.
Sharpe also said there were some aberrations in process from table to table where some counters weren’t allowed to sound out the names of the candidate they saw represented and the person making the final tallies often looked at the ballots but were supposed to go on the word of the two representatives.
And, after the count was supposed to be finished, a forgotten box of ballots had to be tabulated.
In the end, the hand recount found a one vote aberration from the earlier count for a 19-vote margin instead of 20.
Mallow, the winner of that hand count, will be representing Savannah at the Georgia statehouse next year. The audit will not affect the outcome of his nor any of other races on the ballot on Nov. 3, except the presidential race.
When the presidential recount starts in Chatham County, election workers and observers will gain a small benefit from their experience: the county commissioners plan to move them out of the cramped room where they worked the District 163 recount into a larger warehouse room.