Saturday, November 21, 2020

Why Georgia’s Unscientific Recount ‘Horrified’ Experts

Election 2020 Recount Georgia

This week, thousands of Georgians sat at tables in rooms large and small across the state’s 159 counties and counted nearly 5 million paper ballots by hand, in what officials called a statewide audit of the general election outcome. Though the process ended by confirming President-elect Joe Biden’s lead, certified by the state on Friday, expert observers across the nation familiar with the state and its history with election technology looked on, feeling what one described as “horrified.”

These observers included computer scientists, cybersecurity analysts, an adviser to Congress on election integrity, and the statistician who invented the method of auditing elections that Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger said the state was carrying out.

Their reactions to the noble efforts of exhausted election workers were not, they underlined, due to evidence of wrongdoing, or fraud, or challenges to the election’s legitimacy. Their concerns owed to the process being used, what state officials were calling it, and what this could mean for future attempts to build public trust in election results—including on January 5, when voters in Georgia will once again be in the national spotlight, as a special election decides the balance of power in the US Senate.

The series of events leading to the “audit” began with a flurry of attacks leveled at Raffensperger from within the GOP, launched not even a week after Election Day, urging everything from his resignation to a complete hand recount of all ballots from the November 3 election.

In a surprise move, Raffensperger announced on November 11 that he would order the count. He used what Gregory Miller, chief operating officer of OSET Institute, a nonprofit organization that researches and develops election technology, called “pretzel logic.” The state was obligated by law to perform a “risk-limiting audit”—a means of determining accuracy by counting a random sample chosen according to mathematical formulas. The technique has been tried in a small but growing number of states in recent years, and the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine concluded in a 2018 report that all states “should mandate risk-limiting audits.” But Raffensperger decided to forgo choosing a sample of ballots, insisting instead that counting all of the nearly 5 million ballots by hand, in less than a week, would be necessary to fulfill the obligation.

Georgia came to the idea of conducting risk-limiting audits last year, after US District Judge Amy Totenberg ordered the state to overhaul its entire election system because of outdated technology plagued by computing vulnerabilities. The state is one of only a handful that uses the same system statewide, whereas most states use a patchwork of voting methods; in addition, the voting machines then in use did not print out paper ballots.

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