ATLANTA (AP) — A judge on Friday agreed to unseal absentee ballots to allow for an audit of November election results in Georgia's most populous county.
Henry County Superior Court Judge Brian Amero said the specifics of the audit of more than 145,000 absentee ballots from Fulton County would be outlined in a future order, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.
The ruling stems from a lawsuit against the county that alleges evidence of fraudulent ballots and improper counting. The judge said he'll order county officials to scan the ballots and produce high resolution images. The plaintiffs plan to use those images to determine whether the ballots were completed by hand or machine to determine their legitimacy, the newspaper reported.
The plaintiffs, nine Georgia voters, will pay for the audit, the newspaper reported.
Fulton County Commission Chairman Robb Pitts issued a statement after Friday's ruling saying it's “outrageous that Fulton County continues to be a target of those who cannot accept the results from last year’s election.”
“The votes have been counted multiple times, including a hand recount, and no evidence of fraud has been found,” Pitts said, "The fact remains that Fulton County safely and securely carried out an election in the midst of a public health crisis. It’s a shame to see that the ‘Big Lie’ lives on and could cost the hardworking taxpayers of this county.”
State and federal officials have repeatedly said there was no evidence of systemic fraud in the 2020 election.
The plaintiffs wanted to take the absentee ballots to a private company for scanning and inspection, the newspaper reported. But Amero cited federal and state law Friday in saying that county election officials must retain custody of the ballots during the audit. That could avoid issues like those raised during an audit in Arizona.
Georgia election results were certified months ago, and this audit cannot change the results. Before certification, the state did a full hand recount of the presidential race to satisfy a new audit requirement in state law. Another recount, in which the ballots were run through scanners to be tallied again, was done at the request of former Republican President Donald Trump's campaign after he lost by a narrow margin to Democrat Joe Biden.
In a brief filed in court last month, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger argued the law allows for the public disclosure of ballot images, not the ballots themselves, and therefore asked the judge to allow the inspection of only scanned ballot images.
“From day one I have encouraged Georgians with concerns about the election in their counties to pursue those claims through legal avenues,” Raffensperger said in a statement Friday. “Fulton County has a long-standing history of election mismanagement that has understandably weakened voters’ faith in its system. Allowing this audit provides another layer of transparency and citizen engagement.”
This story was first published on May 21, 2021. It was updated on May 24, 2021 to make clear that the secretary of state was arguing that the law allows for the public disclosure of ballot images and not the ballots themselves.