As part of an ongoing effort by some Republicans and Trump supporters to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election, you might have heard something about efforts to conduct a forensic audit on the ballots to prove fraud did — or did not — occur.
In Arizona, the state Senate successfully sued to get access to Maricopa County’s 2.1 million ballots, even after two post-election audits were conducted by a Republican-controlled board that confirmed Biden’s victory. A partisan third-party group has been “auditing” the votes in recent weeks.
Former Department of Homeland Security official Matt Masterson told NPR that Arizona’s review is “performance art,” a “clown show,” and definitely “a waste of taxpayer money” that threatens confidence in democracy and is not an actual audit. A conservative radio host in Phoenix and ardent Trump supporter has begun making similar remarks, backing away from his previous support of the audit and now summing it up as “the sideshow at the state fair.”
Now, prominent Republicans in Georgia, ranging from newly reelected party chairman David Shafer to both gubernatorial primary candidates seeking to unseat Gov. Brian Kemp, are calling for Georgia’s ballots to go down a similar “forensic audit” path after the 5 million presidential votes were already counted three times, including an audit, before the results were certified.
Many of the lingering claims about Georgia’s elections come from a dramatic rise in mail-in absentee ballots due to the coronavirus pandemic, leading to some genuine questions about a relatively unfamiliar part of the elections process. But much of the narrative around alleged voter fraud has been driven by baseless accusations of wrongdoing — and seemingly willful misrepresentations of steps officials take to keep ballots secure.
An ongoing lawsuit in Fulton County seeks to unseal more than 145,000 absentee ballots only and inspect them for evidence of counterfeit or fraudulent ballots, but that is currently on hold after all of the defendants in the case filed motions to dismiss.
But based on a GPB News analysis of Georgia election rules and practices, extensive reporting on Georgia’s new election system and interviews with elections experts, there is no way to “forensically audit” absentee ballots or votes printed out by ballot-marking devices, and numerous safeguards are in place to verify only legal votes are counted. Additionally, any “audit” done at this point could not alter the outcome or any election results, unlike pre-certification post-election audits many states conduct.
The term “forensic audit” is traditionally used in the financial world to uncover embezzlement or other financial crimes by combing through minute details of accounts. These issues are traced to individual transactions or people — but that is not possible with elections. The right to a secret ballot means after a voter’s eligibility is confirmed (either in person or with signatures and identification for mail-in ballots), officials can no longer tie a ballot back to a specific person.
This is by design.
Amber McReynolds is a former elections director in the all-mail state of Colorado and the CEO of the National Vote at Home Institute and current member of the Board of Governors of the United States Postal Service. She said Republicans and other pro-Trump groups pushing for these so-called audits are asking for things that don’t exist, and are furthering conspiracy theories that show a lack of understanding about the secure election processes used across the country.
“Those asking for this are clearly responding to conspiracies and lies about the election process driven by one person that lost due to not achieving enough votes or having enough support,” McReynolds said. “The legal attempts all failed due to a lack of evidence, so now these situations are attempting to create evidence that does not exist to simply continue the lie.”
She likens attempts in Arizona, Georgia and elsewhere to “audit” votes to a team that lost a football game ignoring the referees, the rules and the other team in an isolated effort to change their score without actually scoring more points.
There are actual audits and other safeguards in the election system that are designed to catch mistakes and anomalies and ensure that the outcomes are legitimate. In Denver, McReynolds created a “ballot life cycle” that shows all of the steps taken to prepare for the pre- and post-election process. When the rare cause of fraud does occur, like in New Jersey where a city council race was re-done after postal workers found suspicious ballots, the protocols enacted to catch fraudulent activity worked as designed.
‘You cannot just produce counterfeit absentee ballots’
In Georgia, state officials create all of the ballot styles for more than 2,600 precincts across all 159 counties that have the specific combination of races and candidates for each district. Those are then proofread and tested before ballots are sent to be printed for absentee voting and loaded onto ballot-marking devices for in-person voting. County officials perform logic and accuracy testing of election databases and equipment to make sure they work properly, and then absentee ballots are mailed out to those who request them. Mail-in ballots must be returned in a special envelope with identification information to verify the person who requested it is the one that voted and returned it.
When the election is done, bipartisan teams adjudicate questionable absentee ballots that are damaged or flagged by the scanner, while local officials continuously upload election results, update the absentee voter file and give people credit for voting. There is also a good reason that the law allows counties several days before they have to certify their results, and the state several days after that. That’s when officials do canvassing (balancing voter credit, check-ins, provisional and cured ballots with the total number of ballots tabulated) and any post-election audits.
A relatively new addition to Georgia elections law, passed in 2019, is what’s known as a risk-limiting audit, or RLA, which uses statistics to determine the minimum number of ballots you randomly need to manually examine to hit a certain confidence level that the correct person won the race.
McReynolds said RLAs are the best form of a post-election audit, and while Georgia’s full hand count audit is not how RLAs are typically conducted (even with tight margins, fewer than all ballots are pulled), the procedures in place on certified equipment overseen by professionals is a night-and-day difference from other “audits” currently underway or proposed.
But what about the possibility of someone inserting fake pre-filled ballots into the process and altering the counts, like when former U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr said “it’d be very hard” to stop foreign countries from meddling in elections that way?
McReynolds said that also comes from a misunderstanding about the election process.
“With absentee ballots, there are multiple verification steps to send a ballot and then receive a voted ballot back,” she said. “You cannot just produce ‘counterfeit absentee ballots’ without being caught in these steps.”
In Georgia, there are a number of safeguards in place. A counterfeit absentee ballot would somehow have to match the same paper style, have the same outer timing marks that help the scanner identify what choices to count for which race, have the same races and candidates as the precinct it is attempting to emulate, be matched to a voter with a tracking bar code, have the correct special envelope for ballots to be returned, match the voter’s information and signature — and do all this without a voter knowing this was done in their name.
Plus, Georgia’s voter history file and absentee voter file are public, so campaigns, researchers, journalists and elections officials would notice anomalies including more votes than voters, unusual duplicate requests and other things that could indicate fake ballots were somehow allowed through.
The bottom line: It would be virtually impossible for someone to insert a counterfeit ballot into the election, let alone mass quantities to alter the outcome of the election.
McReynolds said people need to give more credit to their local elections officials who closely watch over all parts of the election process to ensure things run smoothly.
“If a voter did not request a mail ballot but returned one, or if there is another issue with their voter registration due to a move or a change, there are steps that election officials will take to verify the integrity of the election and question that ballot upon return,” McReynolds said.
No election is perfect, as both voters and vote counters are human and make mistakes. In the weeks after Georgia’s November election, several election supervisors resigned or were fired after finding thousands of votes that were not included in their tallies (primarily in Republican-leaning counties), but were discovered before certification — as the process is designed to do.
But especially after the 2020 election cycle that saw Georgia’s votes counted three separate times — including once by hand — McReynolds said the numerous steps already taken by elections officials to ensure election integrity should be trusted and explained to counteract “conspiracies and lies” about the election.
If lawmakers were serious about election integrity, McReynolds said, they would learn how the systems work, and also expand their focus beyond large population centers that have more Democrats.
“If these legislators or those pushing this actually felt there was something wrong in the election process,” she said, “they would request to audit their own races or other counties.”
This story comes to Fresh Take Georgia through a reporting partnership with GPB News, a non-profit newsroom covering the state of Georgia.
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