Hand counts verify Georgia elections amid distrust of machines

Republicans say human checks boost voter confidence
Spalding County Elections Supervisor Kimberly Slaughter helps a poll worker write results on a whiteboard during a hand count of ballots Thursday. Miguel Martinez /miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Spalding County Elections Supervisor Kimberly Slaughter helps a poll worker write results on a whiteboard during a hand count of ballots Thursday. Miguel Martinez /miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

GRIFFIN — When a hand count matched the machine count of absentee ballots, a bipartisan handful of observers clapped and cheered in the Spalding County election office Monday night.

The election audit was finally over after two long days of ballot verification in the county an hour south of Atlanta, one of several Georgia Republican-led counties that sought to verify the accuracy of voting machines after last week’s elections.

Whether the hand count increases confidence in election results, especially among Republicans after Donald Trump narrowly lost the 2020 presidential election, remains to be seen. Investigations and recounts have repeatedly debunked suspicions of fraud, but GOP lawmakers have continued to talk about the need to boost voter confidence as Trump regularly spreads conspiracy theories about why he lost.

Conservative activists and Republican election officials said the audits helped restore trust, especially since no significant discrepancies were found.

“We were all excited to see the numbers totaling up with pure transparency and pure accuracy,” said Holly Kesler, Georgia coordinator for the advocacy group Citizens Defending Freedom. “We’re at a point now where both sides really do agree that we need transparency in our elections.”

Before the audit, Spalding County’s election board had voted not to certify the election until discrepancies were resolved.

The largest discrepancy in the hand count of over 5,500 ballots was a three-vote difference during early voting in a Griffin City Commission race. The board voted 2-1 to certify the election Tuesday.

Credit: Miguel Martinez

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Credit: Miguel Martinez

Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger observed an election audit in Bartow County northwest of Atlanta on Monday where the hand count was just one vote different from the machine count among nearly 2,000 votes counted.

“You’re proving the accuracy of the count and the accuracy of the machines to restore any confidence that may be damaged from candidates when they lose the election,” Raffensperger said. “When you have an audit show very similar results, they’re so close that there’s not enough to argue about.”

Republicans’ confidence in elections plunged after the 2020 presidential race Trump lost to Democrat Joe Biden but has steadily climbed since then, according to polling by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

About 73% of voters said in a January survey that last year’s elections — in which Republicans won almost every statewide race — were conducted fairly and accurately, an increase from 56% of voters expressing confidence the year before.

Six Republican-led Georgia counties pursued optional hand counts after this year’s local elections. Fulton County, which is run by Democrats, conducted a second machine count of ballots in school board races to check the results.

“Once it’s done in good faith, it’s a very powerful tool that can really help achieve voter confidence,” Bartow County Elections Supervisor Joseph Kirk said. “When it’s done looking for a problem, when it’s done digging for something after the fact, it just doesn’t have the same value.”

Voting rights advocates have warned that hand counts are being pushed by election skeptics who could use any discrepancy to sow doubt in results.

But after the audits mostly aligned with election night results, complaints about voting machines were muted.

“It takes one time to destroy confidence. It takes many times to restore confidence,” said Roy McClain, a Republican member of the Spalding County election board who voted against certifying the election. “One half-truth, one lie, takes a long time to overcome.”

A Georgia law passed this year requires an audit of at least one statewide contest after every primary, runoff and special election. The audits conducted by several counties after this year’s local elections were optional, going a step further than what the law mandated.

After the 2020 presidential election, a hand count of all 5 million ballots cast confirmed that Biden defeated Trump by about 12,000 votes in Georgia.

Concerns about Georgia’s election equipment, manufactured by Dominion Voting Systems, have only grown since then.

State senators criticized Raffensperger’s rollout of a voting machine upgrade during a hearing this month, and a lawsuit alleging vulnerabilities in the system is scheduled for a January trial in federal court.

As long as voters double-check that the printed text on their ballots matches their choices, the audit can show that scanning machines accurately recorded their votes, Spalding Elections Supervisor Kim Slaughter said. Less than half of voters spent at least one second reviewing their ballots, according to a 2021 study commissioned by the secretary of state’s office.

“I hope that (the hand count) shows transparency, and for some, that it may build some trust in the system that is there,” Slaughter said after the audit’s conclusion.

Besides Bartow and Spalding, election officials also conducted hand counts in Floyd, Forsyth, Paulding and Polk counties.