RINGGOLD, Ga. (CN) — President-elect Joe Biden has flipped Georgia — the first Democratic presidential candidate to win the Peach State since 1992 — taking the final electoral prize of the 2020 campaign.
The projection Friday afternoon came as county poll workers began the work of manually retallying the presidential race ballot-by-ballot.
The Deep South state of Dahlonega gold, a robust film industry, Vidalia onions and peanuts is expected to narrowly go for Biden, as the difference between the former vice president and President Donald Trump is about 14,000 votes.
But even though major media outlets have called the race in Georgia, the task of reexamining the results is already underway.
Sitting before folding tables in the Election and Registration Center, six teams of poll workers began the audit in Catoosa County shortly before 9 a.m. Friday morning.
They will hand count every ballot – all 32,625 cast for the presidential race in the county – and they have until 11:59 p.m. Wednesday to complete the task.
It’s a scene that will be repeated thousands of times over the next few days: Passing the ballots between them, one poll worker said the name selected on the ballot and handed it to their other team member, who verbally acknowledged the name and placed it into one of several stacks of ballots on the table before them.
Eyes bent down on their task, the poll workers around the room counted: “Trump. Trump. Trump. Biden. Jorgensen.”
It’s a process playing out in all 159 counties in Georgia, where election officials began to recount the approximately 4.99 million votes cast in race for the White House.
On Wednesday, Veterans Day, Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger announced the state would audit the close race by hand-counting all the ballots.
But Gabriel Sterling, the state’s voting system implementation manager, says don’t call it a recount – which is governed by a different Georgia statute – but rather a risk-limiting audit of the election that grew to a full-blown retally.
“This will be the largest hand retallying by audit in the history of the United States. We understand that it will be a heavy lift,” Sterling told reporters Thursday.
The goal is simple: to prove the voting system Georgia recently adopted statewide counted the ballots correctly, a trial of man versus machine.
Typically, Raffensperger’s office would take a sample of ballots from one particular race and hand count them to ensure the machines were performing as they should. The closer the race, the larger the sample. To accurately audit the presidential race, workers would typically have to pull a quarter of all ballots cast – about 1.3 million, Sterling said. Logistically, it was easier for state election officials to order the full retally.
Republican Congressman Doug Collins, who is leading the Trump campaign’s involvement in the retally, told reporters during a call Wednesday the state’s retally allows the campaign to look into further concerns it has about voting in Georgia.
Officials with the Trump campaign said their goal of chipping away at the lead Biden amassed in the typically red-leaning state would take patience. The campaign eventually wants to question signature matching and alleged ballot harvesting in the Peach State, but the retally was a first step.
“This is a victory for integrity; this is a victory for transparency,” Collins said.
In fundraising emails about contesting the outcome of the election – whose proceeds for donations under $8,000 are not going to that purpose — the campaign said it hopes the recount will uncover ballots that were “improperly harvested.”
But according to Sterling, there will be no opportunity for poll watchers to challenge the retally.
“This is an audit of the ballots that came through legally,” Sterling said. “There’s going to have to be a post-election situation to look for individuals who may have violated the law and double voted and if anybody has cast a ballot for a dead person.”
Election officials expect the hand count to be slightly different than the one conducted by machine – human error will take care of that. And the new count began with the absentee ballots, ones typically the toughest to count because they “have the most human interaction,” Sterling said.
The Catoosa County Election and Registration Office sits in the northwest corner of the state near a set of train tracks running through town. During the Civil War, those tracks carried Union soldiers on the Andrews Raid riding the last wisps of steam in the locomotive they commandeered in Kennesaw. They traveled about 1.75 miles further north before the train came to a stop and the raiders were captured.
Voters in Catoosa County overwhelmingly backed Trump. About 25,000 voters supported the president’s reelection to only about 6,900 who voted for Biden.
Most voters in the county cast their ballots in the advanced early voting period – about 21,000. Another 5,164 voted by mail and 25 cast provisional ballots.
Papers taped to the table showed where auditors were to place the ballots cast for Trump, Biden, Libertarian Party candidate Jo Jorgensen and others such as write-in candidates.
“We will be counting every single paper,” Tonya Moore, director of the county’s elections office, explained to the poll workers gathered at 8 a.m. Friday morning.
Seated at their tables, the poll workers raised their right hand and swore to rely on the printed text of the ballots and pledged not to take photographs or engage in campaigning.
Over the next few days, they have rules to follow. No food or drink on the table. The poll workers can only use red pens because blue or black ones could mark a ballot. Once they break the seal and open a plastic box holding ballots, workers cannot leave their table. They work in pairs to reduce human error.
The employees gave each team Thanksgiving-themed names: Team CC was the casserole crew and HH was the harvest hooligans, for instance.
Also in attendance were two Democratic poll watchers, who took an oath not to interfere with the audit process.
A few minutes before 9 a.m., after the election office went over the process with the poll workers, its employees began handing out the plastic bins. Purple gloves were provided to help the teams grip the ballots and better count.
An hour into the count, election officials opened up a box and broke the seal because one team sealed four write-in votes into the box when they should have gone to the three-person adjudication board sitting in the center of the room who determines if the write-in vote is going to a valid, write-in candidate or shouldn’t be counted because it went to, say, Santa Claus.
Returning from lunch, Thomas Davis, a retired teamster, and Kristy Pennington, who sits on the board of a local youth center, said they participated as poll workers for the first time this year.
The audit is going smoothly because the poll workers made a “meticulous count” the first time, according to Davis.
Learning the process, with its counting and recounting, has given Pennington insight into how secure elections are at a time when some people have questioned their integrity.
“I’ve been able to hush a lot of people,” Pennington said.
By midday, the teams had gone through most of the absentee ballots cast by mail, about 5,000 votes, which made Ricky Kittle, chair of the Catoosa Elections and Registration Board, think they would not need to work long days to finish the count in time, at least in their county.
After finishing the retally, according to a notice posted at the entrance of the building, election officials in the county will begin logic and accuracy testing on its election machines Nov. 19. After all, the runoff election for Georgia’s two Senate seats, the races that will determine which party controls that chamber, will be held Jan. 5.