Hand counts spread in Georgia despite lack of voting machine problems

In Spalding County, humans check machine results
Spalding County Elections Supervisor Kim Slaughter helps poll workers during a hand count of ballots Thursday. The county’s majority-Republican election board voted 3-1 in August to require the hand count of this year’s elections and withhold certification of elections until any discrepancies are resolved. Miguel Martinez /miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Spalding County Elections Supervisor Kim Slaughter helps poll workers during a hand count of ballots Thursday. The county’s majority-Republican election board voted 3-1 in August to require the hand count of this year’s elections and withhold certification of elections until any discrepancies are resolved. Miguel Martinez /miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

GRIFFIN — There were no signs of miscounts or voting machine errors in Spalding County, a conservative exurb south of Atlanta, and this week’s elections for mayor and the City Commission weren’t particularly close.

Still, deep distrust of Georgia’s voting machines drove the county election board to require a hand recount this week. Spalding is one of six Republican-run counties across the state conducting a labor-intensive audit of results from ballot scanners.

“People come to me with concerns that they can’t tell what their vote was. Their ballot goes into a secret box,” said Roy McClain, a Republican member of Spalding’s election board. “Our job is to restore faith and confidence in our system. We’re going to prove that hand-counted paper ballots is something that’s very doable.”

Credit: Miguel Martinez

icon to expand image

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Hand counts have become increasingly common in Georgia and across the country in conservative communities that resist voting technology, especially since former President Donald Trump narrowly lost the last presidential race. Investigations and recounts, both by hand and machine, have repeatedly debunked suspicions of fraud.

Voting rights activists said the human-driven counting process in Georgia — and similar Republican efforts in states such as Arizona, Nevada and Wisconsin — could destroy faith in elections rather than build it.

“I see hand counts as part of a push by bad-faith actors to spread lies and conspiracy theories,” said Kristin Nabers, Georgia state director for All Voting Is Local, who observed the tally Thursday. “Discrepancies are to be expected because of human error, but any discrepancy, no matter how small, could be used to cast doubt on the counting process.”

Four teams of two election workers each sat at folding tables Thursday, sorting batches of 50 ballots into piles for each candidate. The hand-counted totals were then compared with the machine results to find discrepancies.

If they don’t match, election board members said they might refuse to certify elections from tabulators manufactured by Dominion Voting Systems. If that happens, the county could end up in court because under state law, the machine count is the official result.

Spalding County Elections Supervisor Kim Slaughter said the process could help assure voters that vote counts are accurate. About 60% of Spalding voters backed Trump in 2020.

“It can restore — for some of the public — confidence in the results,” Slaughter said.

Manual audits of election results have become an increasingly common way to verify that vote-counting computers reflect the will of the voters.

Georgia election officials recounted by hand all 5 million ballots cast in the 2020 presidential election, confirming that Democrat Joe Biden defeated Trump by about 12,000 votes in the state.

Credit: Miguel Martinez

icon to expand image

Credit: Miguel Martinez

A state law passed this year mandated more audits, requiring at least one statewide contest to be double-checked after primary, runoff and special elections.

The state audit law doesn’t cover local elections, but the county’s majority-Republican election board voted 3-1 in August to require the hand count of this year’s elections and withhold certification of elections until any discrepancies are resolved.

Hand counts were also planned in Bartow, Floyd, Forsyth, Paulding and Polk counties.

Jim O’Brien, a Democratic member of the Spalding election board, said he is concerned about ballot reviews driven by partisans who claim they want to ensure “election integrity.”

“Republicans are pushing hand counts all across the country, so I just see Spalding County Republicans falling in line,” O’Brien said. “If nothing was uncovered in testing (of voting machines) prior to the election, why are we doing the hand count?”

In all, election workers in Spalding were hand counting over 5,500 ballots cast in Tuesday’s elections, which included leaders for the city of Griffin and a countywide sales tax for education that passed with 57% of the vote.

At one point, vote totals written by election workers on a whiteboard showed a discrepancy: There were higher hand-counted early vote totals in every race.

But observers said their own running tally closely matched election night results, and they suspected election officials added numbers incorrectly. County officials will reconcile figures before the audit is finished.

The counting teams finished tallying early votes and partially counted election day votes before the long day ended. The audit will resume Monday, after a day off for Veterans Day, and then the results will be publicly posted on the county’s website.

The election board will have to decide whether to certify the results before a Tuesday deadline.