Breanna Thomas, election liaison for the Georgia Secretary of State, looks over her ballot after using the new Georgia voting machine during a demonstration at the James H. “Sloppy” Floyd building in Atlanta, Monday, September 16, 2019. Next to the touchscreen, an HP printer creates a paper ballot. The ballot includes a text listing of voters’ choices along with a bar code that can be read by an optical scanning machine. Voters can review their choices for accuracy and request a new ballot if needed. (Alyssa Pointer/alyssa.pointer@ajc.com)
Photo: Alyssa Pointer
Photo: Alyssa Pointer

Hand recounts of Georgia’s paper ballots barred by election proposal

Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger has repeatedly said paper ballots will give Georgia voters “a physical recount.”

But under a proposed elections rule, the only physical part of the recount would occur when poll workers feed ballots into the machines.

The rule calls for recounts to be conducted by ballot scanning machines that read votes encoded in bar codes. Election officials won’t review the ballot text to check the accuracy of vote totals until the state develops auditing rules.

Election integrity organizations say recounts of paper ballots should be done by hand to help ensure that the printed text matches votes tabulated from the bar code.

“You have to have a manual process to confirm a computerized process,” said Marian K. Schneider, the president of Verified Voting, a nonpartisan organization that promotes accurate and verifiable elections. “The best way is to do a hand recount that can look at the human-readable text on the paper output.”

Voters across Georgia will use the state’s new election system during the March 24 presidential primary. They’ll make their choices on touchscreens, then review printed-out paper ballots before inserting them into scanners for tabulation.

The recount proposal alarmed election integrity advocates who feel misled by Raffensperger’s statements that paper ballots will result in a physical recount.

“They feel like it’s a bait and switch,” said Marilyn Marks, the executive director of the Coalition for Good Governance, a plaintiff in a lawsuit seeking hand-marked paper ballots. “You’re getting an electronic recount, not a physical recount.”

Voters will be urged to review their printed ballots for accuracy, but no one will be able to tell whether votes embedded in bar codes were hacked or altered, Marks said.

Raffensperger has touted the printed, readable paper ballot as a way to give voters confidence that election results are accurate. Georgia’s old touchscreen voting system lacked a paper ballot.

“Because we have a human-readable ballot and that it drops into a box, we’ll be able to do a physical recount,” Raffensperger said in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on July 30, the day after the state awarded a contract for the new voting system. “We can go back and do a count-by-count of every single ballot to say, ‘This is what it was.’ ”

He repeated his assertion that there would be a physical recount to WALB-TV on Tuesday, and he made the same claim to Georgia Public Broadcasting in July.

The proposed election rule makes clear that recounts will be conducted the same way as the original count. Rescanning the bar codes will likely show the same election results, Schneider said.

Deputy Secretary of State Jordan Fuchs said paper ballots will create a record of votes for original counts, recounts and audits.

“Rigorous tests ensure the accuracy of the scanners reading votes,” Fuchs said in a statement. “That level of verification is only available because Georgia is now using paper ballots.”

The printed text on ballots will be used when the state begins basic tabulation audits of election results in November, followed by more rigorous audits by 2024. Audits must be conducted by manual inspection of random samples of paper ballots, according to House Bill 316, state election legislation that passed last year.

Computerized recounts are more accurate than human recounts, said David Becker, the executive director of the Washington-based Center for Election Innovation & Research, a nonprofit that works to make elections more accessible and secure.

“Human beings are enormously bad at counting large numbers of things accurately and quickly,” Becker said. “It does not help voter confidence when you’ve got a partisan battle over every single ballot in a statewide election.”

No election with a margin of more than 1,000 votes has been overturned by a recount in modern U.S. history, Becker said.

Losing candidates in Georgia are entitled to a recount if they lose by less than 0.5% of total votes cast.

Across the country, many states call for hand recounts of paper ballots in some circumstances, such as when elections are close. For example, Florida retabulates ballots using scanning machines and conducts a manual recount of ballots where voters’ intent wasn’t clear and the margin is less than 0.25%.

The State Election Board is collecting public comments on the recount rule and other proposed election procedures until Feb. 28, when the board is expected to vote on the proposal.

Read the proposed recount rule

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