Election Day did not end with a decisive outcome. Counting the votes takes time, and close margins of victory in many states mean that we will be seeing some recounts to confirm the outcome. But not every recount is the same, and some aren’t even recounts.
In Georgia, the margin between President Donald Trump and now President-Elect Joe Biden stands at 14,000 votes, well within the allowable recount provisions laid out by state law. Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R) said on Wednesday that election officials will be conducting a “hand recount” of all ballots for the presidential race to be completed by November 18. He has referred to this process as a recount, a recanvass, and an audit, despite all of these being unique acts in election administration.
Hand recounts are not permitted by Georgia law. But the public seems to be demanding one. Moreover, the state was already planning to conduct a risk-limiting audit to verify accuracy of the results. So, audit or recount? Here’s what’s happening.
Recounts and audits are distinct processes. A recount occurs after an election when the margin between candidates is narrow, or if a candidate asks for a recount. Recounts are a literal counting of ballots, sometimes by hand, to confirm the result. Some states have automatically triggered recounts for contests decided within a small margin; other states offer an option for a recount when a candidate requests it. Georgia does not have automatic recounts, but a candidate can request a recount after certification.
Contrary to recounts, an audit seeks to verify that the primary counting method is accurate. In Georgia, Risk Limiting Audits, or RLAs, are required by state statute. In an RLA, a certain number of ballots are audited based on the margin of victory between candidates in the race selected for auditing. Closer margins require more ballots to be reviewed in order to achieve a high standard of statistical confidence in the overall result. The process involves taking a small batch of ballots from precincts based on a unique identifier. Even pulling a few hundred ballots can be labor intensive. For contests with very small margins of victory, manually auditing all ballots is more efficient.
Audits are important. BPC recommends that states use audits to instill confidence in the reported outcome. While an RLA cannot confirm a 100% accurate count of the initial results—since it is not a full recount and therefore can only provide confidence within a specific interval—it offers a sound statistical check on the voting process that is sufficient in most cases.
So, what is happening in Georgia right now? Raffensperger ordered a hand-tally of all ballots across the state. One may think that this is a recount, but there are two reasons it is not. First, recounts in Georgia are not done by hand. Second, in Georgia, the results must be certified before a recount can be requested while an audit—per BPC’s recommendation—occurs before certification.
So, the Georgia maneuverings must be an RLA, right? Not quite. What Raffensperger has essentially ordered is a hybrid of an audit and a recount. This means that while they will be assessing every ballot, which is not normal in an ordinary RLA, they will be doing it by hand, which is not normal of a typical recount. After the completion of this process, which is set to happen on or before November 18, Raffensperger will the assess the results and then continue to the certification process on November 20. After certification, a recount can be requested which would see all the ballots scanned by machine again across the state.
One additional complexity in the Georgia case is that the state will hold a runoff for two Senate seats on January 5, 2021. These seats will determine control of the U.S. Senate. Election officials need to begin the process of preparing for that high-stakes election while concluding the one ongoing today. Election officials need to adhere to UOCAVA (Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act) deadlines for sending ballots (November 24, 2020), handle absentee ballot requests from voters, and plan for in-person voting on the day of the runoff election.
Audits are an important part of the election ecosystem meant to impart assurance that the vote counting process is functioning properly. While what Raffensperger has instructed election administrators to do is slightly different than normal procedure, with the surging accusations of wide-spread voter fraud, it is may be what is necessary to instill voter confidence in the result.