As it has in many states, President Donald Trump’s campaign questioned the outcome of the election in Georgia, where Joe Biden has a lead of over 14,000 votes, too close for Georgia Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to call.
Raffensperger on Wednesday ordered a hand recount of each of the nearly 5 million ballots cast, and while the outcome is unlikely to change, says University of California, Berkeley, statistician Philip Stark, that doesn’t mean the election process in Georgia was fair and the results trustworthy.
“I give it a 20 or 25% chance that Republicans will be able to show what is, in fact, true about Georgia: namely, that their processes are in such disarray that they have no idea who actually won, and then turn over the selection of the electors to the legislature,” said Stark, who is part of an ongoing lawsuit that seeks to force that state to provide every voter the opportunity to hand-mark a paper ballot, in person or by mail, to create a trustworthy paper trail that could be used to audit the results. “That in itself won’t alter the presidential election, assuming that Pennsylvania sticks. Pennsylvania doesn’t look nearly as bad as Georgia, which is a train wreck.”
Georgia’s disarray, Stark said, is the result of a long history of shenanigans that have suppressed the Peach State’s minority Black vote, something Stark looked into statistically after the 2018 midterm elections. He and a UC Berkeley graduate student, Kellie Ottoboni, focused on the lieutenant governor’s race in Georgia and the undercount — legal ballots that failed to record a vote for that particular contest — on hand-marked paper ballots, which Stark considers the gold standard, versus touch-screen direct recording electronic (DRE) systems, which are hackable. The undervote rate for that race among touch-screen ballots was significantly greater than on paper ballots in areas with a majority of minority voters.
“The Black votes were missing, we don’t really know what happened to them,” he said, estimating that the situation could have affected tens of thousands of votes. “It would be really surprising if something hadn’t gone wrong.”
The study highlighted the danger Stark has frequently warned about: using electronic voting systems that do not leave a paper trail. While Georgia has since moved to a different electronic voting system with a paper printout — a system that cost Georgia taxpayers roughly $107 million — the printout isn’t a record of what the voter did; it’s a record of what the machine did. The printout isn’t necessarily what the voter sees on-screen.
“This is not just a less reliable, less trustworthy system, it is also a more expensive system,” Stark said. “But it does make it easier to tailor the results to your preferences. To get bespoke election results.”
This history of voter suppression, Stark said, helped Brian Kemp beat Stacey Abrams for the Georgia governorship in 2018.
“(The state of Georgia) has done whatever they can possibly do with selective disenfranchisement: challenging Black voters’ signatures at a substantially higher rate than they challenge white voters’ signatures; disproportionately allocating voting equipment so that majority-minority precincts don’t get enough equipment, generating long lines. It is just a complete mess from top to bottom. And this time, even those attempts to disenfranchise don’t seem to have quite tipped the presidential ballot,” he said.
Add to that a lot of sloppy election practices, and it’s not surprising that some lack confidence in the state’s election results.
“I have heard indirectly, from people who observed this, that ballots were left in scanners from early voting, (and) temporary help hired from a temp service (was) being used to hand-duplicate ballots with no supervision, with no second person looking over anybody’s shoulder while they supposedly transfer information from one to another,” Stark said. “Dominion technicians, while things were live during the election, altered vote databases and changed other programming, which violates U.S. Election Assistance Commission certification.”
Dominion Energy Inc. is one of the country’s largest venders of voting systems.
Georgia is one of a few states that have adopted a post-election auditing process that Stark invented — a risk-limiting audit — that ensures high confidence that incorrect electoral outcomes are corrected before they are certified by manually inspecting randomly selected ballots.
For the presidential contest in Georgia, the 14,000-vote margin is close enough that a risk- limiting audit of the kind Georgia planned would require recounting more than 1 million ballots to achieve a 90% certainty that the results are accurate, Stark said. (More efficient risk-limiting audit methods could drop that to less than 3,000 ballots.)
Since nearly 5 million ballots were cast, Georgia decided it was easier to recount all the ballots, and not by rescanning — Georgia’s typical, though meaningless, type of post-election audit, Stark said — but by counting by hand. Counties are required to submit their manual counts by midnight Nov. 18, allowing two days for the state to certify a winner and prepare to authorize electors for the Dec. 14 convening of the Electoral College, which ultimately will decide the presidential winner.
“Even with a manual recount, the question then is: Will people believe the results, or will that recount process show that they just have no idea where their ballots are, how many ballots they should have, etc.?” Stark said.
The lawsuit Stark is part of was filed before the 2018 midterms and convinced a judge to issue a preliminary injunction that forced Georgia to make some improvements in the election process, though the full case won’t be heard until next summer. Until then, the current system will likely remain in place for the January runoff elections in Georgia for two U.S. Senate seats, which would tip the balance to Democrats, if both candidates win.
As for the presidential contest, Georgia will remain a focus for the Trump campaign until the statewide recount is completed, and perhaps afterward.
In the near future, Stark said, “I think we are going to see more lawsuits, I expect that many of them will be tossed, but there is, I think, a narrow path to setting aside the election results in at least Georgia and possibly some other states, and that could open things up in a weird way. But if it is only Georgia, the results of the presidential contest seem unlikely to change.”