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Georgia Begins Recount of Nearly 5 Million Ballots

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MARIETTA, Ga. — By the time President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. was declared the winner of Georgia’s 16 electoral votes on Friday afternoon, hundreds of county poll workers across the state were several hours into the arduous slog of recounting nearly five million ballots by hand.

Sitting several feet apart to account for social distancing, the workers began the extraordinary statewide effort, technically an audit, on Friday morning. They hunched over sheafs of ballots, recited the names, counted and restacked them in bins.

Similar scenes unfolded in warehouse-like rooms across the state, and would continue until every ballot had been checked.

“We’re pretty much living here right now,” said Deidre Holden, elections and voter registration supervisor in Paulding County, a suburban and rural area west of Atlanta.

Georgia was called for Mr. Biden at 2:21 p.m., extending his final electoral vote tally to 306 — 36 more than required to win the presidency. Still, the political pressure on elections officials was palpable in a freshly minted battleground state that President Trump, who trails Mr. Biden by about 14,000 votes, has vowed he would eventually win.

ImageBoxes and stacks of ballots in Gwinnett County.
Credit…Nicole Craine for The New York Times

The workers were facing a tight deadline. Local officials must submit their new counts by Wednesday night, two days before the statewide certification deadline of Nov. 20. Elections officials had already put in long hours preparing for the recount, and they expected many more long days ahead — particularly as they prepare for the Dec. 14 start of early voting in two high-profile runoff elections that could determine control of the Senate.

Some of Georgia’s 159 counties, including Fulton and DeKalb Counties, two of the state’s most populous, were not scheduled to begin the recount until Saturday.

On Friday afternoon, Walter Jones, a spokesman for the secretary of state’s office, said few problems had surfaced in the counties that began counting that morning. Bryan County, near Savannah, finished its recount of 21,000 ballots, he said.

The audit was ordered this week by Georgia’s secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, after the Trump campaign and the state’s Republican Party demanded a hand recount after claiming that ineligible and dead people had voted.

Mr. Raffensperger, a Republican, has said that while his office would investigate all allegations of voting irregularities, the overall process had been fair, trustworthy and legitimate.

The Trump campaign can request a third tally — a formal recount — if Mr. Biden’s lead is less than half a percentage point. As of Friday afternoon, he was ahead by 0.3 percentage points.

Credit…Nicole Craine for The New York Times

In the Atlanta suburb of Cobb County, which Mr. Biden won by about 56,000 votes, the work got underway at 9 a.m. sharp in a cavernous room inside an event center. There, a county employee, pacing among the folding tables, barked out instructions like a high school teacher before a standardized test.

At each table, workers broke open taped-up boxes and removed fat stacks of ballots sealed in clear plastic bags. At Team 12’s table, a man held a sheaf of ballots, declared the name of the candidate on each one, and handed it to a woman standing across the table who double-checked him, then placed the ballot in a bin with the candidate’s name.

The Cobb County ballots being counted on Friday morning had been cast on Election Day and at early-voting sites using a touch-screen system that produces a paper printout and seldom yields ambiguous results.

Later in the day, said Janine Eveler, the director of elections and registration for Cobb County, the workers would move on to hand-marked absentee ballots, which take more time because of potential issues that need to be closely examined.

But Ms. Eveler said that in Cobb County, ballots deemed to have potential issues in the first counting — about five or six boxes’ worth — had already been separated and adjudicated once, making it unlikely that significant numbers of votes would change in the recount.

Any ambiguous ballots, including the batch that was already adjudicated, would be sent to a panel composed of a Democrat, a Republican and a representative from the county election board. That panel is scheduled to meet publicly on Saturday.

All of Georgia’s 159 counties rely on such panels to resolve issues of ambiguous voter intentions.

A little more than three hours after Cobb County began its recount, its election board certified the results based on the original count. And yet the workers recounted anyway. Ms. Eveler said the total would be recertified if it changed.

Similar scenes played out across the state.

In suburban Gwinnett County, the audit was conducted in a large room in the back of the elections office. Near the main entrance, black ballot boxes were lined up in five rows, ready to be distributed among 60 white tables spaced around the room.

The morning went smoothly — for the most part. At around 11 a.m., one of the workers was given a warning for taking out a phone, potentially violating a rule against taking pictures of the ballots. The worker received a warning. The counting continued.

In Paulding County, a deeply conservative area that went heavily for Mr. Trump, 42 workers paired up around 21 tables in a government office. Most of the workers were not wearing masks even though coronavirus cases are once again rising in the state.

By around 3 p.m., Ms. Holden said, about a quarter of the county’s 85,600 ballots had been recounted. Roughly 50 ballots had been flagged for review by a bipartisan adjudication panel, but in each case, she said, the Democrat and Republican agreed on the voter’s intent.

Richard Fausset reported from Marietta and Dallas, Ga., and Jannat Batra from Lawrenceville, Ga.

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