Beginning at 9 a.m. Tuesday, Georgia's 159 counties can start recounting the approximately 5 million votes cast in the presidential race after the Trump campaign requested a machine recount. But while they're tasked with finishing this third count by midnight Dec. 2, the secretary of state's office is urging counties not to sacrifice accuracy for speed.
"Slow is smooth and smooth is fast. You don't want to rush yourself and cause mistakes and errors that you have to go back and fix ... the smoother you do this, the better off you're going to be," Gabriel Sterling, the state's voting system implementation manager, said in a virtual news conference Monday.
Since the recount must be open to the public and monitors from political parties, counties are required to post notice about when they will be scanning ballots on their website, their physical office locations and by notifying the secretary of state's office.
While parties are allowed to designate monitors to observe the recount, "ballots cannot be contested in this process," Sterling said.
Georgia has already completed an unprecedented by hand audit of every ballot cast in the presidential contest, which reaffirmed that President-elect Joe Biden is the first Democrat to win Georgia's electoral votes since 1992. The state's Republican secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, and governor, Brian Kemp, certified the election Friday afternoon. On Saturday, the Trump campaign requested a recount, which they were entitled to since the margin between Biden and Trump was still less than 0.5% of all votes cast in the race.
The Trump campaign and Republican allies of the president have asserted, without presenting evidence, that there has been widespread voter fraud and that the signature verification process for absentee ballots in Georgia was done improperly. When announcing that the campaign requested a recount, the president's legal team said that if signature verification is not done again, the recount would be a "sham."
Signature verification has already been done twice -- upon receipt of a voter's application for an absentee ballot and upon receipt of the ballot. State law doesn't allow for signature verification to be done again as part of the recount, just as it wasn't done as part of the audit.
Not only is there not a legal process in place to do this, Sterling said, but it's physically impossible to tie a voted absentee ballot back to a voter's original envelope, which is where the signature is.
"There's no way to match (the ballot) back. The only remedy would be to throw out all absentee ballots ... in a particular county," Sterling said. "I don't think there's a judge in the land that would throw out all those legally cast votes if there's proof of a handful of illegally cast ones potentially, which, again, we've seen no proof or evidence that actually exists."
He noted that in prior legal challenges across the country, the solution of disqualifying troves of absentee ballots has been deemed "too severe."
Sterling said repeatedly Monday that the secretary of state's office has not seen any specific evidence of problems with the absentee ballot signature match process, and because of this, it would create a "bad precedent" to pursue a "generalized grievance afterwards that there may have been an issue because the person that I wanted to win didn't."
Additionally, he said that under state law, the entire absentee ballot process -- including signature verification -- is required to be open to the public, which includes observers from political parties, but only one party in one county actually took the opportunity to do this.
"There's no specific evidence that anybody's brought to us that anybody had done anything wrong (with signature verification)," Sterling said. "Both parties had the opportunity to view this in real time when it was being done. Both of them made, I assume, a decision that they didn't need to do that -- and that's unfortunate now that they now believe that there might have been an issue."
While doing the recount, county election officials must keep ballots separated by type: absentee-by-mail ballots, early in-person ballots, Election Day ballots and provisional ballots. This is necessary because the state must certify election results at the precinct level and the results of this recount are what will be certified.
The ballots will be fed through high-capacity scanners, which Sterling said could each process approximately 16,000 ballots in a day. Every county has at least one of these scanners. The largest county, Fulton, has seven, but Sterling said they are trying to deploy more.
To ensure the scanners are working properly, election officials will create a "test deck" of 100 ballots, which should be made up of approximately 75 ballots created from the touchscreen voting machines and 25 hand-marked absentee ballots. The test deck will be run through the scanner to ensure it is working properly since officials know what the results of the test deck should be.
Unlike the statewide audit, where results were held until every county had completely finished, county-level results can be released while the recount is ongoing.
Sterling said that when counties finish their work, they will report their vote totals to the secretary of state's office and then those totals will be uploaded to a new election results reporting page, which is currently being built.
"It's not going to be like on election night when you're getting partial results as you go through the night. It's basically going to be, here's everything from one county, here's everything from another county. That's the way it looks like it's going to be right now," Sterling said, adding that while there isn't anything preventing partial results being reported from one county, it's "a lot safer and easier" to not do that.
The specifics are still being worked out, but Sterling said the secretary's office may upload results twice a day.
Election workers were required to begin with the hand-marked absentee ballots during the audit, but starting with those ballots is only a suggestion to counties for the recount.
Counties will need to have the adjudication teams in place when those ballots, which account for approximately 25% of all ballots, are being re-scanned, which is why this is only a recommendation since some counties may not be able to convene these by Tuesday.
The adjudication teams are made up of one Republican, one Democrat and one election worker. These teams of people are who look at ballots where the scanner cannot clearly ascertain what the voter's intent was. Together, they decide the voter's intent and the majority's opinion prevails.
Sterling said that this human-driven process is where there is the greatest opportunity to see a change in results, but he added that "99 times out of 100, when we've seen adjudication, everybody knows what the voter intended on these things, so there's very rarely anything's really contentious on that front."
The secretary of state's office does not expect this recount to change the outcome of the election.
"The possibility of it changing, you know, it's 2020, you never know, crazy things happen but the likelihood is very low. We don't expect it to change, but you never know for certain," Sterling said.