Investigation blames human error for issues in Fulton election audit

Fulton County members of a recount team work on hand recount and audit of ballots at the Georgia World Congress Center on Nov. 14, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

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Fulton County members of a recount team work on hand recount and audit of ballots at the Georgia World Congress Center on Nov. 14, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Hand recount results of 2020 election were similar to machine tallies

Georgia election investigators reported Wednesday that they found repeated human errors during an unofficial hand recount of the 2020 presidential election in Fulton County, but the overall results appeared to be correct.

The State Election Board then voted 3-1 to refer the case to the attorney general’s office for further investigation into whether Fulton’s elections office violated election rules.

Investigators reviewed Fulton’s recount in response to concerns raised by Gov. Brian Kemp, who told the board in a November letter that he had vetted allegations of inconsistencies in the hand recount, part of a statewide audit of all 5 million ballots cast.

Overall, the results of the hand recount — both in Fulton and all of Georgia — were similar to two machine counts, showing that Democrat Joe Biden won the state by about 12,000 votes against Republican Donald Trump.

Two Houston County residents had claimed to Kemp there were batches of Fulton ballots with 100% of votes for Biden, duplicated batches and incorrect data.

The investigation indicated that the allegations can be explained by mistakes by election workers during the first-ever statewide election audit, which included a review of over 525,000 Fulton paper ballots.

“What could have happened is, they took the batches and divided them by candidate,” said Vincent Zagorin, an investigator for the secretary of state’s office. “So somewhere in here we have the other candidate with numbers that would be 100-to-0 the other way” for Trump.

The final machine recount was the official tally, while the hand recount was designed as a way for humans to manually verify that printed ballots generally matched computer scans. In Fulton, the hand recount gained Trump 345 more net votes than Biden.

“Everything balanced out overall with the numbers,” said Nadine Williams, interim elections director for Fulton County. “If it would have changed to different results, there would have been a concern ... but the results did not change.”

Many inconsistencies can be explained by data entry errors, Zagorin said. For example, election workers labeled ballot scanners incorrectly, transcribed the wrong vote totals from paper forms into audit software, or wrote incorrect ballot batch numbers.

In one case, workers conflated the numbers “97″ and “47″ because handwriting on a batch sheet made the four look like a nine.

“If this were an annual report for a company, it would not be left standing as a credible accounting document,” said Joe Rossi, one of the Houston County residents who alleged inconsistencies in Fulton’s audit. “A presidential election is as important as a company’s annual report.”

After the attorney general’s office reviews the case, Fulton could face fines, reprimands or other sanctions from the State Election Board.

A performance review of Fulton’s elections is already underway, and then the State Election Board could decide to replace the county’s elections board with its appointee. State takeovers of county election offices are allowed as part of Georgia’s voting law passed last year, Senate Bill 202.

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