Georgia election officials seek court orders for absentee ballot study

People sort absentee ballots at the DeKalb County Elections Office in Decatur on Jan. 6. (Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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People sort absentee ballots at the DeKalb County Elections Office in Decatur on Jan. 6. (Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger is going to court to unseal absentee ballot documents for a study of signature verification in last year’s presidential election.

The secretary of state’s office confirmed this week that it is seeking court orders to retrieve absentee ballot envelopes in at least 17 counties. Other counties have disclosed election materials without requiring a judge’s approval.

The absentee ballot envelopes will be used for a statewide study evaluating the effectiveness of the signature verification process, which compared voters’ signatures to verify their identities. The Georgia General Assembly has since eliminated signature verification, replacing it with new ID requirements.

Raffensperger announced the study in December after Republican Donald Trump and state legislators called for further verification of election results that showed he lost to Democrat Joe Biden by less than 12,000 votes in Georgia. An audit of absentee ballot signatures in Cobb County completed later that month found no cases of fraud.

Though election officials no longer use signature matching for absentee ballots, the study will evaluate verification methods employed in November’s election, said Trey Hood, a University of Georgia political science professor hired by the secretary of state’s office to conduct the research.

“It’s not an audit. I don’t want anyone to get that idea in mind,” Hood said. “We’re not relitigating the 2020 election.”

The study will gather a random sample of 5,000 absentee ballot envelopes from across the state, then train students to verify them using the same comparison practices as election officials, Hood said.

The need for court orders to unseal election materials slowed the study, which Hood hopes to complete this semester.

Georgia law requires court clerks to maintain election materials under seal “unless otherwise ordered by the superior court.” But some counties turned over absentee ballot envelopes under a statute in the state’s new voting law that gives the secretary of state authority to inspect them within 24 months of an election.

In Gwinnett County, one of the counties where Raffensperger sought a court order, a superior court judge granted his petition to unseal election materials on Tuesday. Gwinnett didn’t oppose releasing absentee ballot records but required a court order to ensure compliance with state law, said spokesman Joe Sorenson.

The secretary of state’s office didn’t disclose the cost of the study or respond to requests for more information.

“We are confident that elections in Georgia are secure, reliable and effective,” Raffensperger said when he announced the study in December. “Nonetheless, we look forward to working with the University of Georgia on this signature match review to further instill confidence in Georgia’s voting systems.”

In upcoming elections, voters must provide a driver’s license number, state ID number or a photocopy of another form of identification when requesting absentee ballots. Voters can use the same forms of ID when returning their completed absentee ballots, or they can provide the last four digits of their Social Security number.

Election offices across the state are currently accepting absentee ballot applications for municipal elections in November.