I recently had the privilege of volunteering to help monitor the recount of votes in Georgia for the 2020 presidential election. The experience reinforced my belief in the strength of our democracy and the validity of our electoral process. I’d like to share a bit more about how I came to be invited to monitor and why the vote results in Georgia matter so much.
The first time I was involved in monitoring a presidential election was in the fall of 1996. It happened in Nicaragua when the late Dr. Robert Pastor, professor of political science at Emory University and director of the Latin American and Caribbean Program at The Carter Center, asked me to help him plan the upcoming observation of village elections in China. Since I did not know much about electoral procedures, he invited me to “get my feet wet” in Nicaragua, where the Center was monitoring its presidential election. The current president of Nicaragua had lost his second quest for the presidency in 1996 and did not want to concede. Though he talked about leading a popular revolt, he was told the best way to lead with legitimacy is through the ballot box. He ultimately won again in a fair election 10 years later.
After that exhilarating experience in 1996, I then observed a presidential election in Peru, tribal elections in the Cherokee nation in Oklahoma, and elections at different levels in China. From 1998 to 2012, I also organized learning tours of every midterm and presidential election in the U.S. for Chinese government officials and scholars. They were most impressed by what happened after the 2000 presidential election. One official told me, “When the court spoke, political leaders followed the ruling. This is what rule of law means.”
Until recently, The Carter Center had never observed elections in the U.S. But this fall, the Democracy Program asked for volunteers to participate in a risk-limiting audit (RLA) of the Georgia election because the Secretary of State predicted the presidential election outcome in Georgia would be very close. Such an audit helps to assure political leaders and citizens that the system works. By the afternoon of November 12, 2020, the RLA had escalated to a larger statewide hand recount. After watching an emergency training video and a Zoom Q&A the next morning, I was asked to monitor the recount in Fayette County.
When I arrived at the public library where the recount took place, the small auditorium was filled with election officials, auditors, and party observers. An election official greeted me, asked me to wait for identity verification, and had me take an oath 40 minutes later. We were then given multiple paper forms to fill out when monitoring, rather than the electronic system I had used in recent Carter Center election observations overseas.
There were 17 audit boards and two review panels. A third review panel was added later in the day. Each audit board was made up of two persons, and they had to go through each and every ballot, read aloud the names of the presidential candidates of each party and write-in candidates and count the ballot. If there were issues with the ballots, they would be sent to the review panel. A review panel must have an election official, a Republican, and a Democrat to determine if the problematic ballot was valid or not. If there was disagreement, they would vote to decide what to do with the ballot.
I was reassigned to do the same at Gwinnett County on November 14 and 15. While there were only 71,017 ballots to recount in Fayette County, Gwinnett voters cast a total of more than 400,000 votes. It was a much more intense and bigger operation. There was a total of 64 audit boards, although not all of them were staffed when I was monitoring. The party observers were also more engaged. Many of them stood next to the audit board and observed the recount, looking for reasons to complain that the recount procedures were not being followed. But no observers were able to find any systemic problem of the recount. Many of my colleagues joined me during my weekend monitoring. We compared notes and wrote down our general observations. Each needed to file individual audit-board and review-panel reports over the phone to the coordination group.
The Carter Center was the only nonpartisan organization monitoring the recount in Georgia. The Center is known in the world for observing elections in countries where political transitions are taking place, or where the democratic system is still fragile. It has done this over 110 times in 39 countries in Africa, Latin America, and Asia.
Over five days, the Center deployed 68 monitors to 24 counties. The counties monitored accounted for more than 60 percent of votes cast and audited. The Center’s preliminary observation statement says: “Overall, The Carter Center found that the process can and should serve as the basis for increased confidence in the electoral system in Georgia. The office of the secretary of state and Georgia’s counties successfully implemented the audit under challenging circumstances and did so transparently through the provision of meaningful access to partisan and nonpartisan observers, and the interested public.” (Click HERE to see full TCC statement.)
Georgia’s successful voluntary recount – the largest hand recount in American history – did serve to dispel any misinformation that the election was fraudulent. Defying pressure from their GOP colleagues, both the secretary of state and governor certified the votes, officially declaring Joe Biden the winner of Georgia by a small margin of about 12,000 votes.
But this is not the end of Georgia’s 2020 election cycle. Since no senatorial candidates won more than 50% of the votes on November 3, the four candidates with the most votes will contend for the two Senate seats on January 5, 2021.
Currently, the partisan split in the Senate is 50 (GOP) and 48 (Dem). If the two democratic candidates win, the GOP-Dem split in the Senate will be at 50:50. In this case, when the two parties deadlock on resolutions or confirmations of federal officials and judges, Vice President Kamala Harris can break the tie with her vote. In other words, the runoff election for the two Senate seats in Georgia will determine if there is more gridlock in Washington or if President Biden will have a smoother time governing the nation.
Elections have consequences. All responsible citizens should and must vote. There are 23,000 Georgians who could not vote on November 3, 2020 but can vote on January 5, 2021 because they will be 18 years old by the runoff election date.
Early voting begins on December 14. If you do not plan to vote in person, you may vote by absentee ballot. To do so you must first fill out, sign, and submit an absentee ballot application. You can do this online, by mail, by fax, or in person. Your local election board will stop processing absent ballot applications on December 31, 2020. And the final day to vote in person is January 5, 2021. Get out and vote—it’s your civic duty!
Yawei Liu is the Senior Advisor on China at The Carter Center. He is also on the board of directors of the NSHSS Foundation.