Joe Biden
Credit: Joe Biden/Flickr

Last week, Georgia announced that it would conduct an “audit”—functionally a recount—of all of the nearly five million votes cast in the state’s 2020 presidential election after the original tally showed Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump by more than 14,000 votes. The audit will be the largest hand recount in American history, and if you listen to most of the mainstream press, there’s little reason to expect that it will result in a final tally much different than the initial one. “Research shows that recounts do not typically change the results by enough votes to flip the outcome,” reported The Washington Post.

That’s true as a historical matter. Fair Vote, a nonprofit that advocates for electoral reforms, carefully studied the 31 statewide recounts since 2000 and found that in most cases, they resulted in shifts of only a few hundred votes. Only three of the 31 ended up reversing the results because, in each one, the margins between the two candidates were tiny. For instance, in the famous 2008 U.S. Senate recount in Minnesota, Republican incumbent Norm Coleman began with only 215 more votes than Democratic challenger Al Franken. After a months-long recount, Franken had 225 more votes than Coleman, a swing of only 440 votes overall.

But there is a major difference between the Georgia recounts and all the others. In those previous elections, virtually all of the voters used the same system of voting, either in person (in 29 cases) or by mail (in 2 cases, both in Oregon, a universal vote by mail state). With all the voters in those races using the same balloting system and the initial count a virtual 50-50 split between the two contestants, any changes in the tally would naturally occur about equally to both sides. Hence the very modest shift in the overall count.

In Georgia, however, each side’s voters didn’t use the same system. Greater numbers of Republicans voted in-person on Election Day, using the state’s new ballot-marking devices (BMDs). In contrast, Democrats voted absentee by mail by a roughly two-to-one margin. While Georgia’s voting machines have issues, they at least do a good job of marking ballots with precision—say, filling in the oval completely—so very few of those are likely to be thrown out. It’s the hand-marked absentee ballots that are likely to make up the vast majority of the contested ones. And since two out of three of those are Democratic ballots, the audit could hit Biden much harder.

For Democrats, this poses a nightmare scenario. In the initial count, Biden received 849,642 absentee votes. Trump received 451,147. That put the overall gap in voting at only 14,155. If only 1.67 percent of the absentee votes cast for Biden are rejected, Trump could theoretically win the election.

To be clear, this is very unlikely to happen for a couple of reasons. First, while ballots can be thrown out during recounts (because judges determine a voter made significant errors), they can also be added back in (because judges decide a ballot that had previously been rejected ought to count). In most of the 31 recounts studied by Fair Vote, overall vote tallies went up. If that’s the pattern in Georgia, Biden’s lead could grow, or at least not shrink all that much.

The second reason has to do with the standards judges are required to use to determine voter intent on a ballot. If the standards are lenient, the change in the tally will be minimal. If the standards are strict, more ballots will be thrown out.

Luckily for Democrats, Georgia’s standards seem to be “on the generous side,” says Phil Keisling, former Oregon Secretary of State. Georgia’s elections director Chris Harvey told me that his office instructed county election officials last week to count any ballot in which the voter clearly demonstrates an intent to support a candidate. That means, he said, that if a voter circles Biden’s name instead of filling out the oval, as the instructions require, officials should count the vote for the Democratic nominee. “People have all sorts of creative ways of marking ballots that are not consistent with the directions,” he said.

Still, there’s a very real chance that the hand audit will narrow Biden’s margin of victory, possibly by quite a lot. The problem is that the press has not prepared the public for that possibility. Instead, relying on studies like Fair Vote’s, it’s been reported that not much will change. And that opens up more opportunities for the Trump campaign to question the results.

Trump and his lawyers are already charging that the voting machines used in Georgia are rigged—as Washington Monthly’s Art Levine predicted they would. But while the courts have so far dismissed those charges, Trump’s lawyers do have a stronger legal card to play.

As noted, the audit Georgia elections officials are conducting is not an official recount, even though each ballot is being looked at by hand. According to state law, a recount can only be ordered from a judge after the election has been certified. That’s currently scheduled to happen on November 20. A candidate has two days after that date to request a recount. The Trump campaign, therefore, would be within its legal rights to demand such a recount. If by then the audit has already narrowed the vote margin considerably, the public could be forgiven for believing that the recount could shrink it further—even though that is extremely unlikely because, in practical terms, the audit was a recount.

At the very least, a recount after a narrowing of the vote margin would provide the Trump campaign with another tool to drag out the election and another excuse—albeit an erroneous one—to refuse to start the transition process. At worst, an unexpected shrinking margin from the audit would give Trump and his allies more ammunition to unfairly slam Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger—a Republican who, by all indications, has run the process admirably so far—and to sow doubt about the integrity of the election as a whole.

That’s why Democrats and the press need to ready the public for the possibility that the audit could shrink Biden’s lead. With the audit scheduled to be completed Wednesday and the Georgia secretary of state slated to certify the final tally on Friday, there’s not much time to get the word out.

Eric Cortellessa

Eric Cortellessa, a Washington Monthly contributing editor, is a staff writer for Time magazine.