Recount teams assemble for manual review of Georgia election results

Georgia elections official Gabriel Sterling shares information about Georgia's hand re tally and audit of general election presidential ballots Thursday, November 12, 2020.  The 5 million ballots in the state will be reviewed be hand and each county will begin the process Friday morning at 9 am.  (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Georgia elections official Gabriel Sterling shares information about Georgia's hand re tally and audit of general election presidential ballots Thursday, November 12, 2020. The 5 million ballots in the state will be reviewed be hand and each county will begin the process Friday morning at 9 am. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

The first statewide manual recount of paper ballots in Georgia history begins Friday, a major effort to validate the accuracy of an election that showed Joe Biden with a 14,000-vote lead over Donald Trump.

One ballot at a time, election workers will eyeball choices for president and sort ballots into piles for each candidate. They’ll keep going until all 5 million ballots cast have been reviewed.

The monumental effort must be finished in six days, before 11:59 p.m. on Wednesday, according to the secretary of state’s office.

The process will likely be a closely watched, tense affair as Georgia’s 16 electoral votes hang in the balance.

If it goes well, election officials say vote counts will be close to unofficial results, and voters will gain confidence in the outcome. But delays, counting discrepancies or disputes over ballots could derail the recount.

“The point of the audit is to show the machines counted the ballots fairly,” said Gabriel Sterling, Georgia’s voting system manager. “We want to get it right. We want to make sure this is accurate.”

Follow the latest updates on the Georgia recount from the AJC

How it works

Election workers will retrieve sealed containers filled with ballots and then place them on tables, where two people at each table will start going through them.

These people, called an audit team, must be county election employees or Georgia residents recruited to review ballots. Many counties plan to call back Election Day poll workers for the job.

One member of the audit team will look at a ballot, call out the name of the presidential candidate chosen, then hand the ballot to the other member of the team, who will also say the name of the candidate.

If they both agree, the ballot will be stacked in a pile labeled for that candidate. If there’s a disagreement over which candidate the voter picked, ballots go into another pile to be decided by a Vote Review Panel, made up of a Democrat, Republican and designee of the election director.

Only the presidential race is being recounted, so there’s no need for audit teams to check beyond the first race listed on each ballot.

After the ballots are sorted into stacks, the audit team will count up the votes for each candidate, write them on a form and return the ballots to their containers. Then those totals will be entered into laptops by different election workers at another table.

The recount is open to the public. Anyone can watch from an observation area. Official monitors appointed by political parties will be able to get closer, but they’re not allowed to talk to audit teams or touch ballots.

The Trump campaign raised objections to ballot security and poll watcher rules late Thursday, but the secretary of state’s office gave no sign it would change recount procedures.

Video illustrates the steps in the election ballot audit

Challenges ahead

Larger counties will have the heaviest workload because they have the most ballots to recount. Election staffs have already worked long hours since Nov. 3, and now they have to start over.

The manual recount will become the official tally in the election, replacing all totals reported so far.

In Fulton County, it will take about 300 people working 10-hour days to finish the count of 528,000 ballots.

Smaller counties might finish before Wednesday’s deadline.

Rockdale County has set up 32 tables in a gym for audit teams to sift through nearly 45,000 ballots.

Whether the recount builds or harms voter confidence remains to be seen, Rockdale Elections Supervisor Cynthia Willingham said.

“You can have human error just as we have machine error,” Willingham said. “We’ll see how the numbers come out. This is a first for Georgia. Everything else is speculation until we go through the process.”

The manual recount is only possible because Georgia added paper ballots this year. The state’s new voting system combined touchscreens with printed-out ballots. Bubbled-in absentee ballots will also be reviewed.

In Ben Hill County, the recount of 6,500 ballots might be finished in one day, Elections Supervisor Cindi Dunlap said.

“This just goes to show what having that paper trail will do,” Dunlap said. “I think it’ll go just as smooth as it can.”

Finishing the election

There isn’t much time to spare in the recount that Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger ordered on Wednesday.

The deadline for Raffensperger to certify final election results is Nov. 20, according to state law. Delays beyond that deadline would put Georgia in violation of a federal law that requires absentee ballots to be sent to military and overseas voters the next day for runoffs on Jan. 5.

Both Republican election officials, including Sterling, and Democrats, such as the Biden campaign, said they don’t expect results to change much from those reported so far. If vote counts are much different, that would indicate a serious problem with Georgia’s voting computers, Sterling said.

“At the end of this hand recount process, we are confident the Election Day result will be reaffirmed: Georgians will have selected Joe Biden as their next commander in chief,” the Biden campaign said in a statement Thursday.

After the counting starts, it will continue through the weekend. While the secretary of state’s office said counties must start by Friday morning, DeKalb and Fulton counties said they wouldn’t be ready to begin until Saturday.

The recount will probably start slowly since counties will handle absentee ballots first, some of which might take more time to determine voter intent than printed-out ballots, where audit teams can easily read text, Sterling said.

New election results won’t be reported as they’re tallied. Instead, the secretary of state’s office will release the progress each county has made in completing the count, Sterling said.

Outcomes will only be made public after counties finish.

Secretary in quarantine

Georgia’s top elections official, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, quarantined himself Thursday after his wife tested positive for the coronavirus.

Raffensperger was planning to take a coronavirus test and will self-quarantine even if his test is negative, The Associated Press reported.

The quarantine won’t affect the statewide audit and recount of the presidential race, according to the secretary of state’s office.