US Election 2020

US election 2020: why it took Georgia so long to count votes & call Biden

It took 17 days following the election to certify the results of the US presidential election in Georgia following several setbacks. What took them so long?

US election 2020: why it took Georgia so long to count votes & call Biden
DPA vía Europa Press DPA vía Europa Press

From leaking water in a counting room, voter fraud allegations, and a recount - audit hybrid; no wonder Georgia’s vote count status has been under close scrutiny since polls closed. In fact Georgia has arguably been the most watched state this election year, which shows no sign of letting up, thanks to a looming senate race and much certification controversy. The two January runoff races to determine control of the Senate are sure to keep all eyes on Georgia well into 2021.

But what has taken so long to certify the vote in the state, keeping the Peach State in the spotlight?

Burst pipe in Fulton County

The very first hold up in Georgia came on Election Day during the afternoon, when in Fulton County’s State Farm Arena, directly above the processing room where absentee ballots were being counted, a pipe burst. No ballots were damaged but there was a delay to counting by about four hours.

Georgia first ballot count: too close to call?

When Georgia’s initial vote count was nearing its end, the margin was fairly small. Even though it wasn’t exactly too close to call; Biden appeared to be in the lead by over 14,000 votes with 97% of the vote counted. However pressure mounted from Republicans to take action, given the tight margin. Although there is no mandatory automatic recount law in Georgia, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger decided on Wednesday 11 November to order a full hand recount of almost five million total votes cast in all 159 counties.

“With the margin being so close, it will require a full, by-hand recount in each county. This will help build confidence. It will be an audit, a recount and a recanvass all at once. It will be a heavy lift, but we will work with the counties to get this done in time for our state certification,” Raffensperger said at a press conference.

Recount confirms Biden win

It looked as though it was all over. It wasn't. The recount finished on 19 November and confirmed that Biden still lead, by over 12,000 votes. Biden’s lead following the recount narrowed by about 1,200 votes. AP reported Saturday that no individual county showed a variation in margin larger than 0.73%, and the variation in margin in 103 of the state’s 159 counties was less than 0.05%.

Every single vote was touched by a human audit team and counted,” said Gabriel Sterling, who oversaw the implementation of the state’s new voting system for the secretary of state’s office. “Obviously, the audit confirms the original result of the election, namely that Joe Biden won the presidential contest in the state of Georgia.”

Certification controversy

On Friday 20 November, Georgia’s governor announced that he would certify the election result, solidifying Joe Biden’s win. No surprises there.

The result even did get certified the next day following Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s public acceptance of the result. Raffensperger stated “like other Republicans I’m disappointed our candidate didn’t win Georgia’s electoral votes,” he said. “I live by the motto that numbers don’t lie. As secretary of state, I believe that the numbers that we have presented today are correct.”

About an hour later, though, the “certification” was retracted, saying it was going to be certified, but that hadn’t actually happened yet.

It took until 4pm on Friday 20 November to certify the Georgia recount result for the second and final time.

What is a hand recount?

What happened in Georgia was not formally a recount under the letter of state law, mainly because they’re usually not done by hand. Nonetheless, the hand tally conducted to complete the audit was effectively a recount in practice. A recount is literally counting every single ballot by hand, to check against the initial count that was done by machines.

An audit on the other hand aims to verify whether or not the first counting method was accurate. Georgia’ state statute requires Risk Limiting Audits (RLAs) to be carried out. An RLA involves a  small number of ballots to be audited to check the original margin of victory was correct. An audit is extremely laborious and usually nowhere near every ballot is assessed, just a sample. So what happened in Georgia this week was more like a hybrid between a recount and an audit because every ballot was assessed by hand, checked and counted again.

So in summary, Biden won Georgia at least twice this year; and one reporter even commented that there could be one more for luck still to come.

“All kidding aside, another recount is coming. The first was a pre-cert audit. So it’s likely there will be at least one more winner announcement.”