What happens next in Georgia's election? Certification, audit and a race to Dec. 6 runoff
The month of November will be busy for Georgia voters and elections officials as the state transitions from the Nov. 8 general election to prepare for the Dec. 6 runoff for U.S. Senate.
Even though election results are known, there are still ballots left to be counted, totals to be checked and double checked, a statewide audit and more before general election work is completed. All the while, state and local elections officials are beginning the work needed to implement a runoff election on a timeline twice as fast as before, navigating the Thanksgiving holiday and increased attention to ensure a safe, secure election.
Here is a look at the herculean work Georgia's county elections workers must complete in the next 26 days before polls close and the state gets a reprieve from high stakes elections.
Certifying the November election
Nearly 4 million ballots have been cast and counted in the 2022 midterm elections and elections watchers have "called" winners in everything from governor to state House and Senate, but things are not officially over for a few more weeks.
Military and overseas absentee ballots and provisional ballots have a later deadline to be counted — typically the Friday after Election Day, but it is Monday, Nov. 14, this year because of the Veterans Day holiday. State officials said Wednesday there were fewer than 10,000 outstanding possible ballots to be counted, and not every provisional ballot would be cured and accepted by the deadline.
That small number of ballots, plus the current margins in the Senate race, are why there is a runoff. Georgia law requires candidates to earn more than 50% of the vote to be victorious.
The current iteration of runoff elections were implemented by segregationist white Democrats in the state legislature in the 1960s as a way to prevent Black voters from electing the candidate of their choice after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the county unit system, a sort of statewide electoral college that gave rural white counties more weight than urban, Blacker counties.
In the early 1990s, after Democratic Sen. Wyche Fowler lost in a runoff, lawmakers lowered the threshold from 50% to 45% to win without going into an overtime election. Four years later, Democratic Sen. Max Cleland won with 48.9% of the vote and Republicans changed the cutoff back to 50% when they controlled the legislature in 2005.
Once all the votes for the 2022 election have been counted, county elections boards must certify their election results are accurate. A new state law moved that certification deadline earlier, which will be by 5 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 15. In the time leading up to certification, counties are processing remaining ballots, double checking the returns to make sure things are accurate and ensuring voters get credit for participating in the election.
But the election still isn't over: Georgia law also requires a post-certification audit of a statewide race in even-numbered election years.
What is this post-certification audit?
Georgia conducts what is called a risk-limiting audit, which uses statistics to identify the number of ballots or batches of ballots election workers need to hand count to meet a certain threshold of confidence that the correct winner of a race was called and that the voting tabulation equipment worked as intended.
In 2020, the state audited the presidential election but Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger ordered a full hand count of all 5 million ballots because of controversies and conspiracies about Georgia's election system. That was an atypical example, and not how this year's audit will work.
In a press conference Thursday, Raffensperger said he selected his own race to be audited, since he had the largest margin of victory out of every statewide office at about 9.3% over his Democratic opponent, state Rep. Bee Nguyen.
So how does the audit work? The state is using a vendor called VotingWorks which has expertise in conducting audits to assist counties in the process. On Wednesday, Nov. 16, the state will roll 20 10-sided dice to create a random seed number that is input into software that will tell counties what batches of ballots to select and count by hand.
Even with nearly 4 million votes and a nine-point margin, very few ballots would typically need to be pulled to meet the risk limit and confirm the outcome, so state officials are requiring every county to audit at least two batches: one batch of ballots from ballot-marking devices on Election Day or in-person early voting, and one from either provisional or mail-in absentee ballots.
Georgia election director Blake Evans said that, ultimately, about 5% to 7% of the state's ballots would be looked at.
On Thursday, Nov. 17, counties will begin their audit by unsealing the batches of ballots randomly selected by the software and hand counting the results for the secretary of state's race. Counting is done by sorting the ballots into stacks for each candidate, results are marked on a tally sheet and then the data is input into the audit software.
The audit will be open to the public, as will the tally sheets and data once the audit is complete by Friday, Nov. 18.
It is important to note the audit is not designed to check the exact number of votes for each candidate, and the tally sheets for the batches may be slightly off from the machine count of the batches because of human error in counting.
When does voting start for the runoff?
Only after the audit is complete will the state be able to verify the counties' results are correct and certify the election. The Secretary of State's office said Friday they hoped to complete that by Monday, Nov. 21.
Then, elections fully pivot to runoff mode. By law, early voting can start "as soon as possible" and must start a week before the election and will run from Monday, Nov. 28 through Friday, Dec. 2. The Secretary of State's office said counties may offer early voting sooner, though by law there will not be voting on Thanksgiving, the day after Thanksgiving or that Saturday, Nov. 26.
Unlike primary and general elections, there is no mandatory weekend early voting day required.
The absentee ballot request portal is now open, though there is a much narrower window to have those ballots mailed and returned.
There are about 150,000 Georgians who voted by mail in the November election that will automatically receive an absentee ballot for the runoff, because they are either over 65 years old or are disabled and applied to be on the "rollover" list for every election this cycle.
Counties will post their early voting hours and locations as soon as they can, and state law requires them to provide notice of their early voting hours at least a week before it begins.
This story has been updated to include new guidance from the Secretary of State's office about when early voting can begin for the runoff.