ATLANTA — State election officials say the process of tallying the large increase of mail-in ballots went exactly as they predicted, and there is no evidence of widespread voter fraud. 

Despite their predictions, the amount of time it is taking to finish the tabulations is being used against them to support claims of an inaccurate count.

In the weeks leading up to Nov. 3, election officials repeatedly warned that mail-in ballots would change how and when results were reported in Georgia and across the nation. The time it would take to reach final results would be much longer, officials said, and candidates in the lead would likely shift as mail-in ballots were tallied.

Their projections came to fruition in Georgia when President Donald Trump’s large lead over Joe Biden on Election Day diminished and disappeared after mail-in ballots from Democrat-heavy counties were added to the statewide total, resulting in Biden edging ahead of the incumbent. 

But Georgia Republicans have leveraged the arduous election process — brought on by the global pandemic — to rattle off baseless claims that the election results are inaccurate and even tampered with.

On Wednesday, Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger refuted claims the prolonged count in Georgia indicates tampering or fraud.

“What many people aren't aware of is that where we are in the process right now in our counting, we're in the same place that Florida is, North Carolina and Texas,” he said. "The thing is, in those races, it's not real close. In our case, there's 14,101 votes right now that separate the top versus number two. So therefore, all eyes have focused on that.

"But the other states are still out there tabulating their absentee ballots."

Wednesday, Raffensperger also announced a full hand recount of the presidential race in all of Georgia’s 159 counties but denied allegations it is to appease the Trump campaign.

“We're doing this because it is really what makes the most sense for the national significance of this race and the closeness of this race,” he told reporters.

Election experts back state election officials, saying the time it has taken to tabulate absentee ballots was expected. So was the Democratic surge of absentee ballots after Trump pushed Republicans to vote in person.

Dr. Enrijeta Shino, assistant professor of political science at the University of North Florida, said she is not surprised that mail-in ballots drastically pushed Biden ahead in Georgia despite Trump’s substantial lead on election night.

"Before the election for months, President Trump was demonizing mail-in ballot voting and urging his supporters to vote in person,” she told CNHI. “I totally believe that the majority of mail-in ballots were for Biden, because the Democratic Party was pushing its supporters to vote by mail to be safe. But the Republican Party was doing the opposite. So there’s no surprise there.”

As for the false claims that mail-in ballots lead to tampering, she said, also not a surprise.

“Why? Because that is the message they have been receiving from their party leadership,” Shino said.

Slowdown does not indicate inaccuracy

The push for increased use of absentee ballots in Georgia and across the country can be attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic jeopardizing the health and safety of not only voters but poll workers, too.

Cathy Cox, former secretary of state and dean of the Mercer University law school, said during her time in office she pushed the Georgia legislature to change the law on absentee ballots to allow for “no excuse” absentee ballot use.

“That form of absentee balloting — no excuse absentee balloting — has been available to Georgians now for over 15 years, but it just hasn't been dramatically used until, of course, the pandemic,” she told CNHI.

The use of mailed balloting increased even more when Raffensperger took the initiative to send absentee ballot applications to all registered Georgia voters for the presidential preference primary. After that, his office created an online portal system to make it easier for voters to request absentee ballots.

"So the die has been cast now that hundreds of thousands more ballots were used in that form this year than ever before which is a good thing if that encourages people to vote and vote conveniently and safely,” Cox said. “… But what it sets up is a lot of manual processing of paper envelopes and signature matching that Georgia was not really well equipped for.”

More than 1.3 Georgians chose to utilize an absentee ballot to cast their vote in the general election. Despite a majority of those returned in the days and weeks leading up to Nov. 3, more than 42,000 were returned and accepted on Election Day itself.

A court ruling allowed counties to begin processing mail-in ballots before the election, but none could be tabulated until then. Counties have to verify signatures on the outside of absentee ballots and take part in a painstaking, one-by-one review of any absentee ballots that were unintentionally mis-marked and couldn’t be read by the scanners.

Shino said the long delay in results was also anticipated.

“Mail-in ballots take a little bit longer to process because sometimes also the election officials need to verify the eligibility of the ballots — they have to check the address, they have to check the signature,” she said. “That slows down the process and Georgia has not dealt with vote-by-mail at this high of a rate in the past. They’re adapting. We’re seeing the slow down in the process but that does not mean the process is bad or not working.”

After the dust settles from this election, Shino expects absentee ballot tabulating to be much smoother in the future.

“We are learning from this and election officials are learning from this experience,” she said.

GOP infighting

Georgia’s Republican congressional delegation has put a target on Secretary of State Raffensperger. U.S. Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler have called for his resignation.

Cox, who served under both Democratic and Republican administrations, called the unfounded claims from Georgia’s top politicians “irresponsible and completely devoid of of credibility.”

“There really is not any evidence that I have heard that suggest fraud error or mismanagement in the outcome of this election. If there was, I think those senators would have already had lawyers at the courthouse filing a lawsuit,” she said. “… That’s what unfortunately strikes me that these are all comments made with an agenda — to just stir up the voting public and pander to President Trump — but do nothing that is really designed to get the matter resolved.”

As secretary of state, it is not Raffensperger’s job to look for evidence to support their claims, she said.

“The people who don't like the outcome have the burden of proof in a court of law to contest it, and that's the way the process works,” she said. “But they don't get to just throw stuff up in the air and send the secretary of state scurrying around the state, trying to find a needle in the haystack that might look like fraud. That's their job.”

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