Georgia’s top elections official calls for full recount of presidential votes

Georgia’s top election official has called for a full recount of the nearly 5 million votes cast in the state's closely watched presidential election – and he wants it done by hand. Stanley Dunlap/Georgia Recorder (Oct. 14)

Post updated 6 p.m. November 11 with full write-through.

Georgia’s top election official has called for a full recount of the nearly 5 million votes cast in the state’s closely watched presidential election – and he wants it done by hand and by the state’s Nov. 20 deadline to certify results.

Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s Wednesday announcement came a day after President Donald Trump’s campaign requested a hand count after coming up short in Georgia, although Raffensperger said that did not influence his decision.

“We’re doing this because it’s really what makes the most sense,” Raffensperger said. “With the national significance of this race and the closeness of this race, we have to run a statewide audit.”

As of Wednesday, Democrat Joe Biden led Trump by about 14,000 votes in a state the president won by 5 percentage points just four years ago. The president-elect’s margin of victory in Georgia – a state that has not helped put a Democrat in the White House since 1992 – is the tightest in the nation. At stake are Georgia’s 16 electoral college votes.

Biden became president-elect after emerging the winner in Pennsylvania Saturday, but Trump continues to challenge the results there, in Georgia and in other states. One lawsuit filed in Georgia targeting absentee ballots has been dismissed.

“Because we now have that verifiable paper ballot, for the first time in 18 years we’re going to have something to count instead of just pressing a button and getting the same answer,” Raffensperger said, referring to the state’s new voting system that creates a paper trail. “So, we’ll be counting every single piece of paper, every single ballot, every single lawfully cast legal ballot.”

A hand recount is the most labor-intensive and expensive option, says Trey Hood, a political scientist at the University of Georgia. It remains to be seen exactly how much it will cost for workers to count by hand the record-setting nearly 5 million ballots that were cast in this election.

And in some ways, this is uncharted territory for Georgia. The state’s new $104 million touchscreen machines print a ballot that includes a scannable QR code and the text of the voter’s choices. Once a voter reviews the printout, the ballot is officially cast once its inserted in a high-speed scanner that reads the QR code.

Instead of quickly rescanning the ballots, workers will conduct the recount by hand and read the printed text indicating each voter’s choice.

Hood said he was surprised by Raffensperger’s decision to go all-in on the recount, which he chalked up to the intense political pressure that was coming from within his own party. U.S. Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler called on Raffensperger – who is also a Republican – to resign Monday over unspecified “failures.”

With a 14,000-vote margin of error, Hood said he does not expect the recount to change the outcome of the election.

“It’s not close enough,” Hood said. “Are you going to see the exact same count? No. I don’t know what it’s going to be – it’s going to be a couple hundred votes one way or a couple hundred votes the other way, probably.”

Kerwin Swint, Kennesaw State University’s director of the School of Government and International Affairs, agrees that the audit is unlikely turn the election in Trump’s favor.

“Well, 14,000 votes is a lot to make up for,” he said. “These kinds of recounts normally don’t result in that. It’s usually a couple hundred – that kind of thing. But you never know. That’s why you do it.”

The added cost of a hand count – whatever it may be – will fall to Georgia’s 159 counties, although Raffensperger said Wednesday that the state may be able to help reimburse the counties later.

Local officials will likely need to add personnel – possibly by calling back poll workers – to reduce the amount of overtime paid out to election staffers, and they will need additional security – potentially even 24-hour security – where ballots are being counted, said Todd Edwards, deputy legislative director with the Association County Commissioners of Georgia.

“We’ll continue our partnership to ensure that this is a fair, transparent and accurate election to the greatest extent we possibly can at the county level,” Edwards said of the costs.

Edwards called it a “tall task” for the state’s largest counties to complete a hand count in time for the state to meet its Nov. 20 deadline. But he said they would make every effort to finish their share of the vote. Fulton County alone handled nearly 525,000 ballots in the presidential race.

As of Thursday, about 37% of counties – including Fulton – had not finished certifying their results. Those results must still be certified locally by Friday. The slow-going tally is largely due to the record number of absentee ballots – about 1.3 million – that were submitted during the pandemic.

Raffensperger called the hand count a three in one: an audit, a recount and a recanvass. State law requires an audit, although it does not require it to be on this scale. He acknowledged Wednesday that it will be a “heavy lift.”

“It’s a big process. There’ll be a methodical process. It will be an accurate process, and I’m sure that there will be plenty of oversight,” Raffensperger said as local election officials stood behind him on the steps of the state Capitol. “We want to make sure that both parties have the opportunity to observe this because we understand the stakes are high.”

After the state certifies the election results, it appears the losing candidate could still request a recount if the margin remains in the 0.5% range. But that recount would be done with the scanners. Thursday, Biden held a 0.32% lead.