AUGUSTA, Ga. – Four days after Joe Biden won the electoral votes needed to become president, the process of certifying results hit another speed-bump Wednesday.
Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger announced a hand recount of all votes in the presidential election, sending elections officials across Georgia scrambling to adjust their post-election plans.
Raffensperger said a hand tally of “every single, lawfully cast legal ballot” was needed because of the slim 14,112-vote margin between President Donald Trump and President-elect Biden. The recount must be completed by Nov. 20.
“With a margin so close I will require a full, by-hand recount in each county,” he said.
The Trump campaign requested a recount Tuesday, and Georgia has remained in the post-Election Day limelight with two U.S. Senate seats headed to a January runoff.
While no claims of vote fraud or election mismanagement have been substantiated, Raffensperger’s announcement came the day after Georgia’s two U.S. senators demanded his resignation. Raffensperger is a Republican, as are Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, who each landed in Jan. 5 runoffs after neither received a majority of votes last week.
Raffensperger said a hand recount of the “English written word” – meaning reading candidate names off the ballots – will demonstrate what the state’s new voting system can do.
The highly touted system chosen by a Republican administration prints a list of a voter’s candidate choices along with a bar code containing results counted by a scanner.
“For the first time in 18 years we’re going to have something to count instead of just pressing a button and getting the same answer,” Raffensperger said.
The recount results will stand for certification, he said. “That will be the last count – that will be the most accurate count,” he said. He also said he believes a candidate could still request a recount after certification.
How the recount would work
Richmond County Elections Director Lynn Bailey, who served on the state commission that selected Georgia’s new voting system, said the hand-recount effectively increases the sample size of a planned Thursday audit, done largely by hand, to include all ballots.
Biden’s slim lead might have required a sample size of 75% to 80% of ballots, she said.
The office had hired 14 people to pull and count an estimated 500 ballots for the audit, a process that would take two days, and it’s not clear how many it will need to manually count Richmond’s 87,530 ballots cast, Bailey said.
To conduct the hand-recount, Bailey said an expanded number of workers – drawn from Richmond’s pool of 470 poll workers – will take each batch of ballots, “sort them out by piles” based on the candidate selected, then “count the number of pieces of paper” in each pile.
Once counted, the results will be compared with the county’s results from election night, she said. Bringing in humans doesn’t necessarily improve accuracy and needs time to be performed correctly.
“Any time you inject humans in a process, that’s when things get imperfect,” she said.
Ensuring an accurate hand count means the recount might not make the Nov. 20 deadline, Bailey said.
“The object and the goal is to have this completed by next Friday, but we won’t meet that date at the sacrifice of accuracy,” she said.
The recount will add to the county’s burgeoning 2020 election expense, which was budgeted at $160,000 last year, increasing it to as much as $750,000, she said.
Some Georgia elections directors said they learned of the recount plan not long before Raffensperger announced it. They were awaiting guidance on how to proceed, including how to pay for the massive undertaking.
“People will be working lots of overtime,” Raffensperger said. “They will be really pleased with those paychecks.”
A labor-intensive process
Chatham County Elections Supervisor Russell Bridges said he had no specific information about the nature of the hand recount.
“Until we get some clear guidance on how we’re going to execute this, it’s premature to say how it’s going to run,” Bridges said. “(Thursday) we will get the details of what we need to know.”
Having overseen a hand recount before, Bridges said that the process is inherently more labor-intensive than recounting the ballots with scanning devices.
“I have a machine that can count 60 ballots a minute,” Bridges said. “The hand recount’s going to replace that. … It’s going to take longer.”
One Augusta elections observer doubted a manual count of the nearly 5 million ballots could be completed by Nov. 20, the state’s deadline to certify election results.
“If you’re doing a hand-recount of the whole state of Georgia with each county doing it, it will take three months,” said Democrat Moses Todd, a former Augusta commissioner.
Ultimately, the recount won’t change the election outcomes, predicted University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock.
“It’s like when you retrace your steps hoping to find something you’ve lost, ” he said.
The hand recount is more subject to human error, especially now.
“Election workers are tired,” Bullock said.
Because of that human error, the final numbers won’t be exactly the same – but not nearly different enough to close the 14,100-vote gap between Biden and Trump, Bullock predicted.
What GOP officials may be trying to do is find absentee votes for which they cannot locate a paper ballot, said David Barbee, a longtime Republican official from Augusta. The absentee ballot total was much higher for Biden.
“That’s what they must think has happened,” he said. “Poll workers ran them through the counter again.”
Locating paper ballots for each vote will “take a while,” and votes missing a paper ballot will be called into question if not discarded, he said.
Contributing: Rebecca Morin, USA TODAY; Lee Shearer, Athens Banner-Herald; Nicholas Robertson, Savannah Morning News