Driven by voter skepticism, several Georgia counties seek election audits

Fulton County's members of a recount team work on a hand recount and audit of ballots during Fulton County's Risk Limiting Audit process at Georgia World Congress Center on Saturday, November 14, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

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Fulton County's members of a recount team work on a hand recount and audit of ballots during Fulton County's Risk Limiting Audit process at Georgia World Congress Center on Saturday, November 14, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Pickens County election officials vote to unseal ballots

The elections board in rural Pickens County voted Tuesday to ask a judge to unseal ballots from this year’s primary, the latest attempt in heavily Republican areas to audit Georgia election results.

If a court agrees, election workers would conduct a hand count of over 7,600 ballots cast in Republican races for governor and secretary of state to check the accuracy of results tabulated by voting computers.

Election board members said they sought the audit in response to residents who distrust Georgia’s election equipment, manufactured by Dominion Voting Systems, which uses touchscreens to print out paper ballots.

“I implore this board to search your hearts in the name of voter confidence and transparency, and to not allow the fear of the unknown to stop you from doing what is right,” Republican board member Mike Carver said before the vote.

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The audit couldn’t change election results, which have already been certified, but they could show the public whether vote counts by optical scanning machines are accurate in Pickens County, located 60 miles north of Atlanta.

Suspicions of election equipment followed Republican President Donald Trump’s loss in the 2020 election, when his supporters claimed there was fraud and blamed Dominion voting machines. Recounts, court cases and investigations have upheld the election results.

A few other Georgia counties have also pursued audits of this year’s elections.

In Bartow and Oconee counties, audits showed identical results when comparing hand and computer counts. Cherokee County’s election board is scheduled to vote next month on whether to seek to unseal ballots for a full audit after it completed an initial audit of seven precincts earlier this month, which found small discrepancies between the audit and original count, according to The Cherokee Tribune & Ledger-News.

Chris Mora, chairman for the Pickens County Republican Party, said an audit could reassure residents that their votes are counted correctly on Georgia’s voting machines.

“We saw a good-sized number of people saying, ‘I don’t care, I’m not going to show up if my vote doesn’t matter,’ ” Mora said. “Not to get into conspiracy theories, because that stuff drives me nuts, but it was more about how to prove to the citizens that their vote is going to count.”

State law requires just one audit of a race every two years, but counties can conduct their own audits. The only statewide audit so far recounted all 5 million ballots cast in the 2020 presidential election, which Democrat Joe Biden won by about 12,000 votes against Trump.

The lone vote against seeking the audit came from Democratic elections board member Terry Franzen, who said election equipment was tested and there weren’t problems in the primary.

“While I understand there may be some people who don’t trust the machine itself, I think we had adequate controls in place,” Franzen said. “There’s no showing of any fraud or mistake or anything like that whatsoever.”

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A court order would be needed to conduct an audit in Pickens County because ballots are kept under seal after elections are certified. A judge last year dismissed a case seeking to unseal ballots in Fulton County from the 2020 presidential election after investigators reported they couldn’t find any counterfeit ballots.

In Bartow County, election officials audited both the primary and runoff elections before Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger certified final results, allowing time to correct problems if they had been found. The Bartow audit found a 0% error rate in both elections, though there were offsetting errors in 22 primary ballots, Elections Supervisor Joseph Kirk said.

“I’ve seen in my community an increase in public confidence to the point now where we’re having trouble getting observers to come to the audit,” said Kirk, who has audited every election since 2020. “They tend to trust the system more as a result.”