ATLANTA (AP) — Georgia's secretary of state on Wednesday announced an audit of presidential election results that he said would be done with a full hand tally of ballots because the margin is so tight.
Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger said at a news conference that his office wants the process to begin by the end of the week and he expects it to take until Nov. 20, which is the certification deadline.
"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, flanked by local election officials on the steps of the state Capitol. "We have all worked hard to bring fair and accurate counts to assure that the will of the voters is reflected in the final count and that every voter will have confidence in the outcome, whether their candidate won or lost."
President-elect Joe Biden leads President Donald Trump by more than 14,000 votes out of nearly 5 million votes in the state. Nearly all ballots have been counted, though counties have until Friday to certify their results.
Georgia's two U.S. senators, Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, earlier this week called on Raffensperger, a fellow Republican, to resign over unspecified claims of election mismanagement. Both face close runoff elections in January that will determine which party controls the Senate. Raffensperger said he wouldn't step down and assured the public there had been no widespread problems.
The audit is a new requirement put in place by a law passed in 2019 that also provided for the new voting machines purchased last year. The state has chosen to do a risk-limiting audit, in which a random sample of ballots or receipts generated by voting machines are checked against results produced by vote-tallying equipment for accuracy.
It was up to Raffensperger to choose which race to audit. He chose the presidential race and said the tight margin means that the audit will effectively result in a full hand recount.
Asked if he chose the presidential race because of the Trump campaign's call for a hand recount, Raffensperger said, "No, we're doing this because it's really what makes the most sense with the national significance of this race and the closeness of this race."
For the audit, election officers will work with the paper ballots in batches, dividing them into piles for each candidate. Then they will run the piles through machines to count the number of ballots for each candidate. The scanners will not read the data on the ballots, but will simply count them.
Chris Harvey, the elections director in the secretary of state's office, said the agency will have a call with county election officials Thursday to go over training requirements and expectations. He said counties will likely begin the audit process that afternoon or first thing Friday morning.
Raffensperger said the process will have "plenty of oversight," with both parties having the opportunity to observe.
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. Biden's lead stood at 0.28 percentage points as of Wednesday afternoon.
Once the results from the audit are certified, the losing campaign can then request that recount, which will be performed by scanners that read and tally the votes, Raffensperger said.
U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, a Georgia Republican who's leading Trump's legal efforts in Georgia, called the upcoming audit a "first step." He noted the Trump campaign had requested a hand recount.
"This is a victory for integrity," Collins said. "This is a victory for transparency."
Collins denied that Republican demands for greater scrutiny of Georgia's vote were politically motivated to fire up GOP voters ahead of the state's two Senate runoffs Jan. 5.
"Look, I don't think anybody in their right mind would think we don't have enough attention paid on Georgia right now," Collins said. "I don't think motivation or turnout is a problem in Georgia."
The issues Trump's campaign and its allies have pointed to are typical in every election: problems with signatures, as well as the potential for a small number of ballots miscast or lost. With Biden leading Trump by wide margins in key states, none of those issues would affect the election's outcome.
In addition to the audit of the presidential race, Raffensperger announced that he's consolidating runoff elections. A runoff for any state races was set to be held Dec. 1, while the runoffs for the two U.S. Senate races was set for Jan. 5. Raffensperger said he's consolidating those runoffs on Jan. 5.
The one exception is the runoff for the special election to fill the remainder of U.S. Rep. John Lewis' term. That election will still be held Dec. 1. The person who wins that election will serve for about a month before Nikema Williams, who was just elected to succeed the late Lewis, takes office.
By KATE BRUMBACK Associated Press
Associated Press writer Russ Bynum in Savannah, Ga., contributed reporting.