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Former Georgia Secretary of State Explains Post-Election Recount


In Georgia, a post-election audit and the largest hand recount in U.S. history is underway. President-elect Joe Biden's lead there sits around 14,000 votes, or around 0.3%. That margin led Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to call for a post-election audit of the nearly 5 million ballots cast in the state's presidential contest. That process began Friday morning. Each county is in charge of staffing and counting every paper ballot to cross-check against the machine totals.

It is a huge task. And we wanted to find out what it's like, so we called Cathy Cox. She served as Georgia's secretary of state from 1999 to 2007. She was the first woman elected to that role and the most recent Democrat. And she's currently the dean of Mercer Law School.

Dean Cox, thank you so much for being with us.

CATHY COX: You're welcome, Michel.

MARTIN: Just overall, just drawing on your experience as secretary of state in Georgia, how do you think the state and the secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, handled the 2020 election?

COX: Well, from all reports, exceedingly well. We had a June primary that had a number of problems. And I think it was foreseeably a good wake-up call for November. And a lot of adjustments were made, a lot of corrections were made, a lot of additional resources were brought to the table. And from all reports, the election on November 3 went exceedingly well.

MARTIN: So, as we've said, the post-election audit is already underway. I mean, some people are saying that people are already exhausted, and this is basically just placating a sore loser. Is there any credible reason not to do this, in your view?

COX: Well, in Georgia, we have a state election board. And the state election board in implementing the new voting machinery established a rule that said there will be an audit in every general election. That rule gives the secretary of state the discretion to choose which race on the ballot is audited. And depending on the closeness of the race, that determines the sample that has to be hand-counted.

In this case, the secretary of state chose one of, of course, the closest margin races on the ballot, the presidential election, to be audited. And therefore, in essence, all of the ballots had to be hand-counted. If he had selected a race that was not really that close, then only a smaller sample of ballots would have had to be hand-counted. So that's what is going on here. He's using basically the auditing discretion that he has to choose the presidential election and deliver a hand-counted recount of all of the ballots.

MARTIN: I see. So - and I understand - as I understand it, he says he selected the presidential because of its national significance and closeness. Presumably, he could have selected either of the Senate races, which are now close too and going to a runoff. But do you agree with his decision to choose the presidential?

COX: Well, here's what is quite likely to play out. We are doing this hand-counted audit on the presidential race, which I suspect is not going to satisfy the Trump campaign because I suspect it is not going to change the outcome. President Trump, as the losing candidate in a race that has a margin of difference of less than a half percent, is still going to be eligible for a recount. And so even after we do this hand-counted audit, under the auditing rules, the Trump campaign will still be eligible for a recount if the margin remains less than half of a percent.

So the secretary of state could have chosen another race to audit, and we could have moved the process on perhaps a little quicker. But he had the discretion to do this, and this is the route he's chosen. But I would suspect we're still going to be going through a recount after this arduous process is completed.

MARTIN: Typically, in your experience - and you did have a lot of years of experience - do these audits show any significant difference in vote counts?

COX: When I was secretary of state, we did not have an auditing process because we did not have the paper ballot component to do this kind of comparison of auditing a paper ballot and comparing it to a scan total. We certainly did recounts in a number of races. And in none of those races did it ever change the outcome. It might have changed the vote totals by a dozen votes here or there, but never in any significant amount that changed the ultimate outcome of the race.

MARTIN: And why is there variance? Even if it's a very small number, what does account for the variance? I mean, because I'm trying to sort of wrap my head around this idea that, you know, the president and his supporters keep insisting that if he didn't win, it's because somebody cheated. Well, if the Democrats did cheat, I don't know why they wouldn't have cheated for everything and won everything. You know what I mean? If...

COX: Right. Well, that's a very logical...

MARTIN: It seems to me if there had been a conspiracy - right, it seems logical that you would just cheat on everything and just take everything. But how - if there is any variance, why is there? Like, what would lead to any variance, even small?

COX: Well, there could easily be variance because of the human error factor - of humans by the hundreds hand-counting ballots. But there could also be variance because you have humans who are subjectively looking at what constitutes a voter's intent. Scanners in Georgia are set to detect a mark in the oval field where you mark beside a candidate's name any kind of mark that basically fills in 10% or greater of the oval field.

Now, a person looking at it might be able to see more than a scanner sees. So they might count a ballot that a scanner did not because the scanner can only do what it is programmed to do. So those are things that just depend on who's reading the voter's intent, an electronic scanner or a human eye and brain.

MARTIN: Well, before we let it go, thanks for sharing your expertise with us. As we said, Georgia is headed for two important Senate runoffs in January which do have national significance, so it's important that people trust the process. Do you have any sense of in Georgia whether they do? And do you have any sense of what would encourage them to do so? Is there something that you think we may have learned here that would help people have more confidence in the outcomes of our elections?

COX: My hope is that when this audit is completed and any and all recounts that candidates are entitled to are completed, voters will say the will of the Georgia voters was upheld. There are no flaws in the process that can be documented anywhere. And we do feel good about this election heading into the January 5 runoff.

MARTIN: That is Cathy Cox. She served as Georgia's secretary of state from 1999 to 2007. She's a Democrat. She's now the dean of Mercer law school in Macon, Ga.

Dean Cox, thank you so much for speaking with us.

COX: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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