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Second recount of Newton County presidential votes begins
State officials say probe of signatures on mail-in ballots not part of process
Second recount1
From left, Mike Hesterley of the Newton County Democratic Party, county elections board Chairman Phil Johnson and Leesha Jay of the Newton County Republican Party check ballots containing write-in votes Nov. 24 during a recount of the presidential election requested by President Donald Trump's campaign. - photo by Tom Spigolon

COVINGTON, Ga. — Newton County election officials were following their counterparts in the rest of Georgia today, Nov. 24, in beginning a recount of the ballots cast in this year’s presidential election.

County election officials today at 9 a.m. were set to begin a recount by electronic scanner of more than 54,000 votes for president that Newton residents cast in the General Election which wrapped up Nov. 3. 

Newton’s election office was among those in the state’s 159 counties which began recounting roughly 5 million ballots cast in the state’s presidential election this month following a request over the weekend by President Donald Trump’s campaign.

State law allowed Trump, who lost Georgia by fewer than 13,000 votes to President-elect Joe Biden, to seek a recount due to the margin between them being less than 0.5%. 

The election results were certified last Friday after a statewide audit of every ballot that included a hand recount.

Newton County Board of Elections Chairman Phil Johnson said the recount would consist of an electronic scan of the ballots.  

“We do not know how long this will take, but we should be able to calculate once we can scan for an hour or two,” Johnson told county political party leaders in an email Monday. 

He said the scan must be completed by midnight on Wednesday, Dec. 2.

“It is certainly our hope we can finish in a much shorter time,” Johnson said.

Each political party can provide up to two monitors, while observers will be allowed to watch what Johnson said would be an “open and transparent” process. 

The recount consisted of ballots being run through scanners rather than counted by hand, said Gabriel Sterling, the election systems manager in Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s office. 

It must wrap up by the end of Dec. 2, posing challenges for a few counties like Fulton poised to hold local elections on Dec. 1.

That process will not involve inspecting or matching signatures on absentee ballot envelopes, which Trump’s allies have called for to weed out any potential instances of mail-in voter fraud — though so far no evidence has been presented of such widespread fraud in Georgia.

State law and privacy concerns currently bar the close level of signature scrutiny that Trump and his Republican supporters in Georgia want, Sterling said at a news conference Monday. 

He also noted the initial verification steps were open for both political parties to watch, but neither did so.

Absent specific fraud evidence or a court order, Sterling said state officials see no recourse to inspect signatures on absentee ballot envelopes at this point.

“We anticipate that we will continue to follow the law and follow the process as we have done from the beginning,” Sterling said. “So far, we have not seen anything widespread.”

Amid various fraud claims, Republican allies of Trump have homed in on mail-in signatures as the best way to test the election’s integrity as the president still refuses to concede defeat. 

Gov. Brian Kemp, U.S. Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, U.S. Rep. Doug Collins and the Georgia Republican Party have all pushed for more comprehensive signature verification.

“We as [Georgia Republicans] will never give up on the fight to make sure that every lawful vote is counted and every unlawful vote rejected,” state GOP Chairman David Shafer wrote Monday on Twitter.

But moves to scrap absentee ballots by inspecting envelope signatures could face tough prospects in Georgia after a federal judge last week rejected a restraining order sought by a Trump ally to halt the election’s certification until signatures could be verified further.

Loeffler’s and Perdue’s Democratic runoff opponents, Jon Ossoff and the Rev. Raphael Warnock, have slammed the two Republican senators for sowing distrust in Georgia’s election system despite the election results’ certification last week.

Meanwhile, Raffensperger has urged state lawmakers to tighten Georgia law on verifying signature matches when the General Assembly next convenes, which currently would be the regular legislative session set for mid-January. The governor so far has not called for a special session before the runoffs.

Mail-in voting looks to continue taking center stage in Georgia with runoff elections for the state’s two U.S. Senate seats that have drawn intense interest across the country scheduled to be held on Jan. 5.

Nearly 800,000 absentee-ballot applications already have been sent out for the runoffs, meaning next month will likely see similar mail-in voting numbers to the 1.3 million absentee ballots cast in the Nov. 3 elections amid the COVID-19 pandemic, said Ryan Germany, general counsel in Raffensperger’s office.

Georgia’s two Senate runoff races are poised for high turnout due to their unique importance. Wins by both Democratic candidates over the Republican incumbent senators would give Democrats control over the White House and Congress for at least the next two years.

Ahead of the runoffs, State Election Board members on Monday extended temporary rules put in place for the Nov. 3 elections that allow counties to install absentee-ballot drop boxes and scan absentee ballots a week before Election Day.

Both the drop boxes and early scanning helped counties manage the unprecedented flood of mail-in ballots for the general election and look to do so again for the runoffs, Germany said Monday.

“That is something I think all voters in Georgia will appreciate,” Germany told members of the election board.

The election board on Monday did not take up a proposed rule aimed at cracking down on potential out-of-state voters who may try to register to vote in Georgia for the runoffs amid recent rumors and reports of non-resident voters possibly attempting to do so.

Republican leaders including Shafer and Collins have pressed Raffensperger to clamp down harder on voter residency requirements, while largely Democratic-aligned observers argue tougher rules could disenfranchise poorer Georgians and those in more fragile living situations.

Germany said Raffensperger’s and Attorney General Chris Carr’s offices have agreed to send out an official bulletin advising county elections boards on specifics of Georgia’s residency requirements and verifications, rather than pass any new rules on the matter.

“We think that will accomplish the purpose that we want,” Germany said.

Early voting for the Senate runoff elections starts Dec. 14. The deadline for Georgia voters to register for the runoffs is Dec. 7.

Beau Evans of the Capitol Beat News Service contributed to this report.