Georgia is headed for another review of its presidential election results after a judge agreed Friday to unseal more than 145,000 Fulton County absentee ballots.
The details and timing of the review must still be determined. But the plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the county want to scan and examine the ballots to determine whether they are legitimate.
At a hearing Friday, Henry County Superior Court Judge Brian Amero made clear the ballots must remain in the custody of Fulton election officials. That could prevent the kind of allegations of mishandling ballots and improper procedures that have dogged a Republican-sponsored audit of ballots in Arizona in recent weeks.
The latest Georgia review cannot change the election results, which were certified months ago and have already been confirmed by multiple recounts. But the plaintiffs say an examination of ballots would get to the bottom of what they see as suspicious activity by election officials at State Farm Arena in November.
Former Republican U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler welcomed the review in a statement issued Friday.
“Voter confidence in our election system is the bedrock of our republic,” said Loeffler, now chair of the voter registration group Greater Georgia Action. “Unfortunately, inconsistencies in Fulton County’s November 2020 absentee ballots cast serious doubt on voters’ faith in our elections.”
Fulton County Commission Chairman Robb Pitts, a Democrat, blasted the review in his own statement.
“It is outrageous that Fulton County continues to be a target of those who cannot accept the results from last year’s election,” Pitts said. “The votes have been counted multiple times, including a hand recount, and no evidence of fraud has been found.
“The fact remains that Fulton County safely and securely carried out an election in the midst of a public health crisis,” Pitts said.
Friday’s decision came in a lawsuit filed by nine plaintiffs, including Garland Favorito, a Fulton resident and self-styled election watchdog. It’s one of more than 30 Georgia lawsuits stemming from the November presidential election and the January runoff for the U.S. Senate. Some of the lawsuits are still winding their way through the courts.
None of the lawsuits — including some filed by former President Donald Trump — succeeded in overturning the election results. But Trump continues to make false claims the election was “rigged,” and surveys show most Republicans believe him.
Such claims have been repeatedly debunked by election experts, by a full hand recount of ballots, by an audit of Cobb County absentee ballot signatures, and by Trump’s own attorney general and election security chief. The secretary of state’s office investigated allegations of misconduct at State Farm Arena and found no evidence of wrongdoing.
Favorito and the other plaintiffs say they want to investigate fraud in Fulton County. In court records and at recent hearings, they’ve said there’s evidence of fraudulent ballots and improper counting.
Initially, the plaintiffs sought to take possession of the absentee ballots and transport them to a private company for high-resolution scanning and inspection. Amero rejected that request.
On Friday, Amero made it clear the ballots must remain in the possession of county officials, citing federal and state law. But he left the details of the review to be sorted out in a future order. He said he wants to protect the integrity of the ballots and the anonymity of the voters who cast them.
Amero said he intends to order the absentee ballots to be scanned by county officials to produce high-resolution images. The plaintiffs want to examine those images to determine whether they are fraudulent. For example, the high-resolution images could be used to determine whether ballots were filled out by hand or mass produced by a copy machine, they say.
The plaintiffs will pay for the review.
Fulton County released a statement saying it “will continue to participate in the judicial process that will ultimately validate the integrity of the elections process.”
On Friday, the voting rights group Fair Fight called the review “a sideshow, not an audit.” The group likened it to a review and recount underway in Arizona’s Maricopa County.
That review was authorized by Republicans in the Arizona Senate. But it has come under fire by local Republicans who say the company conducting the review doesn’t know what it’s doing.
In a court brief filed last month, attorneys for Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger said unsealing the paper ballots would be illegal. They said the plaintiffs have no legal authority to independently verify and tabulate ballots.
In a statement Friday, Raffensperger, a Republican facing a tough GOP primary challenge in 2022, struck a different tone.
“From day one I have encouraged Georgians with concerns about the election in their counties to pursue those claims through legal avenues,” Raffensperger said. “Fulton County has a long-standing history of election mismanagement that has understandably weakened voters’ faith in its system. Allowing this audit provides another layer of transparency and citizen engagement.”
But Raffensperger also noted that all Georgia counties, including Fulton, have ”already hand audited every ballot cast last November, the largest hand audit in U.S. history.
“Counties also rescanned every ballot after the Trump campaign requested a recount,” he said. “Both supported the original election result.”
In addition to Favorito, the plaintiffs in the lawsuit are Stacy Doran, Sean Draime, Caroline Jeffords, Christopher Peck, Michael Scupin, Robbin Sotir, Brandi Taylor and Trevor Terris.
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