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Why does Georgia need to do a hand recount?

The state announced Wednesday it will conduct an audit in the form of a full statewide hand recount of the presidential votes.

ATLANTA — Georgia's Secretary of State made the announcement on Wednesday that the state's 159 counties would be undertaking a full hand recount of the presidential vote before official results are certified.

This will be no small task - especially with a Nov. 20 deadline the secretary of state must meet, by state law, to certify the results.

Georgia & Atlanta Election Results

So why did it have to be this way?

There are two reasons, basically -- one, because of how Georgia election law is structured to see the certification process through, and two, because of how Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger chose to implement that law.

Let's start with the law itself. It's not very complicated -- as a means of ensuring the counting of the votes was sound, Georgia law provides for an auditing process. There are a lot of complicated details to that process, but as it turns out, you don't actually need to know them, because of how Raffensperger chose to conduct the audit in this case.

That's because he chose a race with which the complicated kind of audit doesn't really work -- namely, the race for president. It's too close.

As Raffensperger outlined on Wednesday: "That’s really interesting when you start digging into probability theorem. When you have 5 million votes and the margin is so close - 14,000 - if we pulled out 10,000 votes, all of a sudden it could say, 'Well this is the person that won.' If we pull out 100,000, it says 'this person won.' We pull out a million, this person won," the secretary said. "And that’s why mathematically you have to do a full hand by hand recount of them all, because the margin is so close."

MIT professor and elections analysis and technology expert Charles Stewart III confirmed that. 

"The question really is -- How big of a sample would you need to draw to convince yourself, at least statistically, that Joe Biden, more likely than not, really did receive more votes than Donald Trump?" Stewart said. "And, in order to do that, if you were to start at the beginning and just figure out how big of a sample you would need to draw, you would need to draw out hundreds of thousands of ballots. And so, within the framework of a risk-limiting audit, you might as well do a full recount."

That's because, essentially, a risk-limiting audit is designed to give you a sample that should, if the vote count was done correctly, broadly reflect the overall results you have. That means you have to pull samples out of random batches across counties.

When it's as close as things are between Joe Biden and President Trump in Georgia, you'd need to painstakingly build that random sample from around the state in huge numbers. Fully recounting by hand hardly winds up being much more of an effort.

"If this were Wyoming, where Trump got 70% of the vote, and you wanted to convince yourself that he really did get more votes than Biden, you could draw out 10 ballots," Stewart explained. "If you drew a true random sample of all the ballots in Wyoming, you could draw out 10 ballots and if they gave a majority to Trump you would say, 'Statistical theory tells me he got at least 50%. We can't verify the 70%, but we can verify 50% plus one.'"

But in Georgia, where it's so close that you need a massive sample to give you confidence, Stewart said the short of it basically is, "You get to be so large then, just the apparatus of a risk-limiting audit is such that it makes more sense to just say screw it, let's just look at them all."

Counties in metro Atlanta alone each have hundreds of thousands of ballots to recount and they will have to do it at county expense.

  • Fulton County says it’s now trying to “gather the resources to conduct the recount accurately and efficiently.” When and where is still to be determined.
  • Cobb County’s elections officials planned to meet Thursday morning to begin organizing its recount, which may start Monday.
  • Gwinnett County was meeting into the night, Wednesday, to come up with a plan. “We’ll know more Thursday,” said a county spokesperson.
  • DeKalb County also met into the night, tentatively planning on two teams of 75 people each to examine each ballot one by one, possibly starting Saturday and going for as long as it takes. The county is looking for a large facility to provide for social distancing and security
  • Clayton County elections officials on Thursday morning will participate in a limited, statewide audit, of a sample of ballots, but they have not said, yet, when its re-count will begin