Absentee ballot signature audit ordered after Georgia election

Investigators will audit voter signatures on absentee ballot envelopes in Cobb County, a step announced Monday by Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to further verify election results.

The move follows intense pressure from President Donald Trump and other Republicans who have continued to make unsupported claims that last month’s election wasn’t legitimate.

The review of absentee ballot signatures won’t change the results of the presidential election. Machine and hand counts showed Democrat Joe Biden won Georgia by about 12,000 votes, and the Electoral College voted for Biden on Monday.

The unprecedented signature audit could show whether signatures on absentee ballot envelopes really did match the voter signatures kept on file. But there’s no way to match voter signatures to ballots after envelopes were opened. The right to cast a secret ballot is guaranteed by the state Constitution.

Elections officials in Cobb County and elsewhere reviewed signatures when voters first returned absentee ballots. But Trump has repeatedly called for further verification of election results.

“Now that the signature matching has been attacked, again and again with no evidence, I feel we need to take steps to restore confidence in our elections,“ Raffensperger said during a press conference at the state Capitol. “Starting immediately, we are pulling all of our resources together with GBI to conduct a signature match audit in Cobb County.”

The signature audit is scheduled to be completed in two weeks. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation and the secretary of state’s office will review a statistically significant sample of absentee ballot envelopes from both the primary and general election in Cobb County. Signatures on envelopes will be compared to signatures from when voters registered, either at driver’s license offices or on paper forms.

Raffensperger ordered the audit in response to an allegation that the county failed to adequately match signatures. A separate statewide signature audit study could come later this year.

Cobb Election Director Janine Eveler said her office will assist with the audit, but it’s awaiting a court order before gathering the necessary materials.

Eveler said the complaint referenced by Raffensperger came from the June primary.

“I’m confident any audit would find our office followed procedures and only counted ballots that were processed correctly,” Eveler said. “Even though our resources are already stretched thin by advance voting and preparations for the Jan. 5 runoff, we will help this process move as expeditiously as possible.”

The audit announcement didn’t satisfy Sen. Kelly Loeffler, who last week filed a federal lawsuit with fellow Sen. David Perdue that seeks additional procedures to check the work of election officials who verify voter signatures for absentee ballots.

“That’s a start. Only 158 counties left to go,” said Stephen Lawson, a spokesman for Loeffler. “Full audit or it didn’t happen.”

Gov. Brian Kemp said he supported a signature audit as a way to validate the authenticity of the ballots.

“People want to have confidence in the election. That’s why I felt like it would be good to do a signature audit just to bring people peace of mind,” Kemp said.

Kemp’s comments came after Trump had attacked him early Monday morning over absentee ballot signatures.

“What a fool Governor @BrianKempGA of Georgia is,” Trump said on Twitter. “... Demand this clown call a Special Session and open up signature verification, NOW. Otherwise, could be a bad day for two GREAT Senators on January 5th.”

The secretary of state’s office previously said it wouldn’t audit absentee ballot envelope signatures because it didn’t have a specific allegation to investigate.

But state election officials said they have now heard reports that Cobb County failed to adequately conduct signature matching. They didn’t identify who made those allegations.

Elections officials rejected absentee ballots because of mismatched or missing signatures at similar rates as in the 2018 election, about 0.15%, according to state data.

Overall absentee rejection rates declined after the Georgia General Assembly passed a bill last year that simplified absentee ballot envelopes and gave voters until the Friday after the election to verify their identities. But rejection rates based on signature issues remained the same.

The audit comes after Raffensperger has said he wants to replace signature matching in future elections. Raffensperger said he will ask the General Assembly to require photo ID with absentee ballots.

— Staff writer Greg Bluestein contributed to this article.