Ten metro Atlanta election offices responding to an Atlanta Civic Circle inquiry incurred more than a million dollars in unbudgeted expenses for the state’s two mandatory ballot recounts following the 2020 presidential election.
The first was a hand-count required by Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger. Then, former President Donald Trump called for another recount.
Recount expenses totaled about $1.03 million for 10 of 12 metro Atlanta elections offices that provided data, including $719,030 for Fulton County and $120,000 for DeKalb County. Cobb and Gwinnett County representatives said they did not break out the cost for the two recounts from their general elections expenditures.
The 12 metro Atlanta counties accounted for nearly 2.5 million presidential ballots –about half of those cast statewide for the Nov 3, 2020 election, according to recount data filed with the Secretary of State’s office.
The expenditures offer a glimpse into the magnitude and high cost of the two statewide recounts performed in late 2020. The Secretary of State’s audit was the largest hand-tally of an election in U.S. history, according to The Carter Center, which monitors elections nationally and globally.
The risk-limiting audit, a hand-count of the 4,997,716 ballots cast for president statewide, was the more expensive of the two. Raffensperger mandated a hand-count to verify the soundness of the state’s new voting machines and quell accusations of election fraud. For the second recount, requested by Trump, counties scanned ballots through voting machines. (Trump lost by 12,670 votes or roughly 0.26 percentage points in Georgia, and state law allows a losing candidate within 0.5 percentage points of their opponent’s vote count to ask for a recount.)
The statewide cost is not available for the two recounts, according to the Secretary of State’s office, short of contacting each of the state’s 159 county election offices. But the bill will likely be borne by taxpayers, elections experts say.
“I would assume it’s millions of dollars statewide,” veteran political observer and University of Georgia professor Charles Bullock told Atlanta Civic Circle. Statewide recounts are rare, especially those involving millions of votes, Bullock said, adding that he couldn’t recall the last time Georgia has undergone one.
“This is an unbudgeted expense. You don’t go into an election saying, ‘Well, we better budget for a recount.’ You don’t think about that,” Bullock noted. “That means taxpayers pay for it, and, secondly, you have to take money away from something else.”
Costs varied widely by county, and some did not separate out recount expenditures from their overall budget.
In Fulton County, the state’s largest local elections operation, the hand-tallied audit mandated by Raffensperger totaled $658,289. Trump’s recount request, where ballots were scanned, cost another $60,741.
The $120,000 DeKalb County spent to conduct its recounts could have been spent on “supplies and innovation of equipment and the normal everyday operation of the office, ” Twyla Hart, interim voter registration and election director, told Atlanta Civic Circle.
By contrast, the Telfair County’s elections office spent only $900 on both the Raffensperger-mandated audit and the Trump recount request–but that was a big bite out of its $10,000 annual budget. The southeast Georgia county is one of the state’s poorest, with a population of 16,500, including about 8,500 registered voters.
Telfair Probate Judge Michael Wesley, who oversees the county’s elections operations, said taxpayers will cover the extra expense. “There were no grants or anything to help us,” he told Atlanta Civic Circle.
Douglas County didn’t feel the pinch, because it covered its $40,000 bill using part of a $1.6 million grant from the Center for Tech and Civic Life.
Such grants won’t be available to local elections operations in the future, due to Georgia’s new election reform law. The Election Integrity Act of 2021 bans state elections offices from receiving grants or other outside financial help for their operations.
“The totals will differ with the size of the county and the number of ballots,” Deidre Holden of the Georgia Association of Voter Registration and Elections Officials told Atlanta Civic Circle. Holden is also Paulding County’s supervisor of elections and voter registration.
Georgia’s two recounts were a massive undertaking involving thousands of elections staff and temporary workers, some working around the clock.
Conny McCormack, a national election administration expert, spent nearly a week in Georgia observing the audit. McCormack said she was struck by how gargantuan the process was, especially since most counties had only a day’s notice to build out their recount system.
“I saw hundreds, and even thousands, of people in warehouses–and the fact that it was done in six days is almost miraculous,” McCormack told Atlanta Civic Circle. “Most counties [elsewhere] take six days just to set it up.”
The Whittier, California, consultant was one of 15 out-of-state experts that Georgia brought in for the first recount to observe election workers hand-count nearly five million ballots cast statewide.
The biggest cost of recounts is labor, said McCormack, who has run elections in big cities such as Los Angeles, San Diego, and Dallas and analyzed election recounts in Minnesota and Washington over her 35-year career.
The workers she observed in Cobb, DeKalb, Gwinnett, and two small rural counties worked in teams of two. One would call out the name of the presidential candidate selected on each ballot and the other would then place it in one of three separate stacks for either Biden, Trump or Libertarian Party candidate Jo Jorgensen.
“It became a very time-consuming, cumbersome effort, but I think, for the purposes of building public confidence in the election, it was a good thing,” David Carroll, director of the Democracy Program at The Carter Center, told Atlanta Civic Circle, The Carter Center also had observers on hand during the statewide hand count mandated by Raffensperger. It has monitored 115 elections in 40 countries since 1989.
Here’s a look at how many presidential ballots were cast in 12 metro Atlanta counties and what the recounts cost for 10 who provided data.
The 2020 General Election: At A Glance
Total ballots cast in Georgia: 5,025,683
Total statewide ballots cast for president: 4,997,716
|County||Cost||Ballots cast for president|
* Cobb and Gwinnett did not separate their recounts’ cost from overall election expenditures. Gwinnett provided an estimate.
** Amount paid to seasonal staff brought in to help with the audit and recount. It does not include overtime paid to permanent office staff.
**Rockdale’s cost is only for the audit mandated by the Secretary of State.
Note: Ballot information is for those cast for president, according to the Secretary of State’s Office.
Source: Secretary of State’s Office and the counties.
This story was updated a second time on Dec. 13, 2021.