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Thursday April 15th, 2021 8:06AM

Officials: Hand tally of presidential race finds new ballots

By The Associated Press
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ATLANTA (AP) — A hand tally of the presidential race in Georgia has turned up more than 2,500 votes in one county that weren't previously counted, but election officials said Monday that won't alter the overall outcome of the race.

Nearly 5 million votes were cast in the presidential election in Georgia, and Democrat Joe Biden had been leading Republican President Donald Trump by about 14,000 votes. The unofficial breakdown of the votes that weren't previously uploaded was 1,643 for Trump, 865 for Biden and 16 for Libertarian Jo Jorgensen, according to Gabriel Sterling, who oversaw the implementation of the new statewide election system for the secretary of state's office.

“The reason you do an audit is to find this kind of thing,” Sterling said.

He said the issue appeared to be an isolated problem and that there are “no fundamental changes” in other counties.

County election board Chairman Tom Rees said it appears the roughly 2,500 ballots were cast during in-person early voting but election officials weren’t sure how they were missed.

The county elections office suffered several setbacks, including a top official being infected by the coronavirus, and it seems proper procedures weren't followed when the results were tabulated by machine, Sterling said. But the county had the paper ballots and caught the problem during the hand tally, he said.

The hand count stems from a state law that calls for one race to be audited to ensure the new election machines counted the votes accurately. It was not the result of any suspected problems with the results or an official recount request.

Once the tally is complete and the results are certified, the losing campaign can request a recount, which would be done using scanners that read and tally the votes.

It was up to Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican, to select the race to be audited and he said the presidential race made the most sense because of its significance and the tight margin separating the candidates. Because of that small margin, Raffensperger said a full hand recount was necessary.

Trump, who has made unfounded claims of voting irregularities and fraud, and his campaign have taken to social media to criticize the way the state's hand tally was being conducted. Raffensperger responded in social media posts of his own disputing their claims.

Biden campaign officials, meanwhile, say that while the recount may slightly alter vote tallies, the overall result would be “imperceptible.”

“We continue, after two and a half days of this audit, to agree with the secretary of state that there is no reason to believe that any widespread irregularities have been found,” Biden campaign lawyer Patrick Moore said Sunday in a call with reporters.

County election officials were instructed to start the count by 9 a.m. last Friday and to finish it by 11:59 p.m. this Wednesday. The deadline for the state to certify election results is this Friday, Nov. 20. Raffensperger acknowledged last week that the hand tally would be a “heavy lift” for the counties.

A vast majority of the state's 159 counties had completed the physical hand tally by Monday and were working on data entry and quality control measures — making sure they've counted every batch of ballots and only counted each batch once — before submitting results to the secretary of state, Sterling said. State election officials have said they wouldn't release any results from the tally until the whole process is complete.

As the count unfolded around the state, it appeared to go smoothly in most places. Masked workers divided into two-person audit teams sorted paper ballots into piles for each candidate and then counted each pile by hand. Bipartisan panels were on hand to review certain ballots, including those where the auditors couldn’t agree on the voter’s intent and those with write-in candidates.

Monitors, appointed by local Democratic and Republican parties, were allowed to circulate among the auditing stations but could not touch ballots or record anything. News media and members of the public were also allowed to observe but were required to do so from a designated area.

Fulton and DeKalb counties — two of the state's most populous — spent Friday setting up for the tally and then workers began sorting and counting ballots Saturday. Both counties had hundreds of workers on hand and said they managed to finish counting by Sunday evening.

At peak times, Fulton County had more than 170 two-person audit teams working at the Georgia World Congress Center in downtown Atlanta to recount more than 528,000 ballots. Split into two shifts each day, about 300 workers in DeKalb County tallied the roughly 370,000 ballots cast in the Nov. 3 election.

Cobb County elections director Janine Eveler said in a video posted on the county's Twitter feed Sunday evening that workers had gotten through about half of the county's nearly 400,000 ballots and were on track to finish on time. Some of the ballots counted Friday would have to be recounted again because workers were sorting the ballots by hand and then running them through counting machines, rather than counting them by hand, she said.

Raffensperger's office has consistently said it’s likely the results will differ slightly from those previously reported by the counties but that the difference is not expected to be enough to change the outcome. The tally resulting from the audit is what will be certified, election officials have said.

The AP has not declared a winner in Georgia, where Biden leads Trump by 0.3 percentage points. 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. It is AP’s practice not to call a race that is – or is likely to become – subject to a recount.

___

Associated Press reporter Will Weissert in Washington contributed to this report.

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