ATLANTA (AP) — Election officials in Georgia’s 159 counties started counting ballots Friday morning for a hand tally of the presidential race that stems from an audit required by state law.
The law requires that one race be audited by hand to check that the machines counted the ballots accurately, not because of any suspected problems with the results. Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger chose to audit the presidential race and said the tight margin — Democrat Joe Biden leads Republican President Donald Trump by 14,000 votes — meant a full hand count was necessary.
In Cobb County, in suburban Atlanta, several dozen two-person audit teams wearing face masks as a precaution against coronavirus sat at tables in a large room at a county event center in Marietta as they began counting absentee ballots. At each table, one auditor picked up a ballot read the candidate's name aloud and then passed it to the other auditor, who also said the name aloud before placing the ballot in a clearly marked tray corresponding to the candidate's name.
As they worked, the room was quiet aside from the shuffling of papers and auditors saying, “Trump” or “Biden.”
A similar scene occurred in counties across the state as the count began.
At the Chatham County board of elections annex, a big warehouse on the south side of Savannah, about 60 auditors wearing masks listened as a supervisor ran through how the process would work, then watched a training video before beginning the count a little after 10 a.m.
At the Floyd County administration building in Rome, in north Georgia, pairs of masked auditors sitting at eight plastic folding tables were sworn in at 9 a.m. and the ballots arrived a few minutes later. Republican and Democratic monitors were also sworn in to watch the counting. The party monitors were allowed to circulate among the auditing stations while several other observers were kept back by a black plastic chain.
Even as the count began, Raffensperger was self-quarantining as a precaution after his wife tested positive on Thursday for the coronavirus. The secretary of state's office has instructed county election officials to complete the audit by 11:59 p.m. Wednesday. The deadline for the state to certify the results is Nov. 20.
Deputy Secretary of State Jordan Fuchs told The Associated Press that Raffensperger tested negative for the virus and said the secretary’s quarantine will not affect the audit.
County election staffers will work with the paper ballots in batches, dividing them into piles for each candidate. Then they will count each pile by hand, Fuchs said.
The audit is a new requirement that was included in a 2019 law that also provided guidelines that the state used to purchase a new election system from Dominion Voting Systems for more than $100 million.
The final numbers in the audit count will almost certainly be slightly different from the numbers previously reported by the counties but the overall outcome should remain the same, said Gabriel Sterling, who oversaw the implementation of the state's new voting system for the secretary of state's office.
The results will not be released piecemeal as the counties finish counting but instead will be announced once the full tally is complete, he said, adding that the results of the new count from the audit is what will be certified.
There is no mandatory recount law in Georgia, but state law provides that option to a trailing candidate if the margin is less than 0.5 percentage points. Biden’s lead stood at 0.28 percentage points as of Thursday afternoon.
Once the results from the audit are certified, the losing campaign can request that recount, which will be done using scanners that read and tally the votes, Raffensperger said.
Associated Press photographers Mike Stewart in Marietta, Ga., Stephen B. Morton in Savannah, Ga., and Ben Gray in Rome, Ga., contributed reporting.