In a year of challenges, Georgia hand recount adds one more for local election officials

November 6, 2020 Lawrenceville - Gwinnett County workers work on ballots at Gwinnett County Election headquarters in Lawrenceville on Friday, November 6, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Caption
November 6, 2020 Lawrenceville - Gwinnett County workers work on ballots at Gwinnett County Election headquarters in Lawrenceville on Friday, November 6, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

They’ve had to figure out how to safely administer an election with a pandemic raging, which contributed to a struggle finding poll workers on election day.

They’ve weathered this year’s complicated rollout of a new statewide voter system, and overcome technical breakdowns in the state’s voter database during last month’s early voting period.

On Wednesday, as the men and women who operate Georgia’s 159 county election offices were gearing up to administer two heated U.S. Senate runoffs that will dominate the holiday season, a new obstacle was added to their 2020 list: An unprecedented statewide hand recount of close to 5 million ballots in the most contentious presidential contest of their lifetimes.

Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger gave local election officials almost no warning or guidance before he ordered the statewide recount amid mounting pressure from President Trump and powerful Georgia Republicans. The announcement left local election officials scrambling to figure out how to accomplish hand recounts of all the votes in their counties, something few have ever embarked on in this era of computer tabulation voting and electronic machines.

The recount means more long days for a workforce that’s been putting in 12- and 14-hour days over the past month. It will also be a hit to county budgets, as local election offices staff up and pay overtime to meet the state certification deadline of Nov. 20.

“We feel like we’re drowning," said Misty Martin, the Coffee County elections supervisor who has one other full-time employee in her office and 15,000 votes to count. “We can’t even get our nose to the water yet....It is what it is and I have to do it.

"Suck it up buttercup.”

Nov. 3, 2020 - Marietta, Ga: Cobb County government election worker Cory Porter takes a break to stretch as he counts 2020 absentee ballots at Jim Miller Park Tuesday, November 3, 2020 in Marietta, Ga..  JASON GETZ FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION
Caption
Nov. 3, 2020 - Marietta, Ga: Cobb County government election worker Cory Porter takes a break to stretch as he counts 2020 absentee ballots at Jim Miller Park Tuesday, November 3, 2020 in Marietta, Ga.. JASON GETZ FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Jason Getz

Credit: Jason Getz

Raffensperger, who has said there is no evidence of widespread voter fraud, gave little in explaining why he ordered the massive, statewide undertaking. He said it would “help build confidence” in the outcome of the election, while acknowledging that his order was going to be a “heavy lift” for the hundreds of election workers across Georgia.

“But we will work with the counties to get this done in time for our state certification,” he said.

Georgia’s recount process in recent decades has been carried out by reprocessing computer-counted votes. And with the vote margin in the presidential race favoring President-elect Joe Biden by just over 14,000, most local election supervisors had been expecting a statewide computer recount. That would have involved feeding ballots into optical scanners and running the tabulators again, a much faster and less labor-intensive process.

ExploreGeorgia recount: What the law and state election rules say

Most local election officials have never faced a hand recount on this scale. They have a statewide training session scheduled for Thursday morning with the secretary of state’s office, where they hope to receive guidance.

The recount is technically being called an audit by Raffensperger and will involve poll workers reading and sorting the ballots into piles. The campaigns and their representatives will review the results.

The recount poses the biggest logistical challenge across metro Atlanta — where hundreds of thousands of votes were cast in each county.

It will take dozens, if not more, poll workers to conduct the recounts. In Cobb, election supervisor Janine Eveler wasn’t sure how much staff she would need or what it would cost to recount the 393,000 votes cast in her county. Gwinnett election supervisor Kristi Royston was scrambling to formulate a plan to hand recount her county’s 413,000 votes.

“The election supervisor and staff are working overnight and in the morning to determine how to carry this out,” said Gwinnett spokesman Joe Sorenson. "This is a huge effort for a lot of people that have worked very hard. It will take a lot more help from a lot of people to finish this process. But that’s what elections offices have to do.”

Fulton County, the state’s largest with the most votes cast, faces a hand recount of nearly 525,000 ballots. Fulton elections supervisor Richard Barron said his office is also managing a Dec. 1 special election for the Congressional District 5 seat formerly held by John Lewis, as well as a state senate race.

The county suffered national criticism for long lines in the June primary and had a coronavirus outbreak at its election warehouse last month. Barron doesn’t believe the recount will change the results in any meaningful way, but he worries about the impact on his already strained staff.

He said the recount could cost thousands of dollars that aren’t in his budget.

It’s going to be time and staff burnout — those are my biggest concerns,” he said. “This isn’t ideal, but we have to do what we have to do. It’s not like we have a choice whether to make it happen.”

In DeKalb County, the local elections board had been scheduled to certify results involving its 370,000 on Friday afternoon. The county moved that meeting up to Thursday after Raffensperger announced his decision, giving it more time to prepare for and execute the recount.

DeKalb CEO Michael Thurmond called the potential toll on already weary elections workers “unfortunate, unexpected and possibly unnecessary.” He said Raffensperger’s decision was especially surprising in light of his consistent statements about there being no sign of widespread irregularities in Georgia’s election.

How exactly DeKalb will proceed remained unclear Wednesday afternoon. Thurmond said that, to his knowledge, there had been no discussion with the state about who would cover the cost of the recount.

But he said he is confident the DeKalb elections office — which pulled off a smooth general election after much gnashing of teeth in preceding weeks and months — would handle things well.

“Obviously it’s uncharted water, but I have every confidence that we will get the job done,” Thurmond said.

AJC reporter Kristal Dixon contributed to this story.