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Behind the ballots in Georgia’s recount — the largest in U.S. history

As President Trump presses forward with legal challenges to the election and reiterates false claims that he won, Georgia has been in the spotlight due to its massive statewide recount. The deadline for completing the recount is approaching -- and President-elect Joe Biden’s advantage in the state is holding. Miles O’Brien reports on the largest hand recount in U.S. history.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As President Trump presses forward with legal challenges and false claims that he won the election, Georgia has been the center of national attention with its statewide recount.

    The deadline for finishing the recount is midnight tonight, and president-elect Biden's advantage and apparent win of the state is holding.

    Miles O'Brien reports on the largest hand recount in U.S. history.

  • Woman:

    Biden.

  • Woman:

    Biden.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Barely more exciting than watching paint dry.

  • Woman:

    Trump.

  • Man:

    Trump.

  • Woman:

    Trump.

  • Man:

    Trump.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    The manual audit of every ballot cast for president in Georgia on November 3 methodically marches forward, despite a harsh intramural political feud.

  • Gabriel Sterling:

    Emotions are high. The president's going to continue to fight. His supporters continue to fight.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Gabe Sterling runs elections for Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger. Both are dyed-in-crimson-wool-Republicans fending off an elephant's helping of wrath from President Trump and several other party comrades, all of them questioning the integrity of the contest that made Joe Biden a whisker-thin winner here.

  • Gabriel Sterling:

    There's a lot of stuff flying around on Twitter and Facebook that touches fact, but doesn't necessarily have all the facts or the evidence. And that's what we're trying to get to.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    It's an arduous path that began with a pre-election plan to conduct a scientifically random check of the state's new $106 million dollar voting system. It's called a risk-limiting audit, or RLA.

  • Monica Childers:

    An RLA is designed to determine whether the winner won without any chance of a machine problem happening.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Monica Childers is with a nonprofit called VotingWorks hired by the state.

    We first met her in September in Brunswick, Georgia, as she schooled election officials on how to run these audits. If there is ample cushion in the margin between candidates, RLAs can validate the outcome of an election with great confidence by checking only a small sample of ballots, but no such luck in this race, separated by less than a third of a percentage point.

  • Monica Childers:

    When you do a risk-limiting audit on a race with a very small margin, your sample size is going to expand, because the margin is what determines how many ballots you have to look at.

    So, our margin in the presidential race was very, very small, and that's why we're looking at all the ballots.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Nearly five million of them. It is the largest hand count of ballots in U.S. history, and it appears to be going pretty smoothly.

    The Atlanta-based Carter Center deployed a veteran team of observers who earned their spurs watching sketchy elections run by despots all over the world. It is their first domestic assignment, a sad sign of the times.

    Paige Alexander is the CEO.

  • Paige Alexander:

    I believe that we're in a place where each side has riled up the other, and we're not going to get over it easily without people listening to each other.

    And so, as long as you can share shed a light on it and you can show people how the process works, and people are willing to listen, then there's hope.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    But listening may be a lost art in this age of partisan hyperpolarity.

    First, the state's senators, both Republicans, demanded Raffensperger resign, citing unspecified failures. Then, outgoing Republican Congressman Doug Collins accused Raffensperger of caving into Democratic pressure.

    And President Trump called him a so-called Republican, and then made baseless claims the state didn't properly verify signatures on mail-in ballots. That issue prompted Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina to call the secretary.

    On CNN, he was asked what exactly Graham said.

  • Brad Raffensperger:

    Well, asked that the ballots could be matched back to the voters, and then I got the sense it implied that then you could throw those out for any.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Senator Graham denies he asked that votes be tossed.

    Meanwhile, election workers counting ballots found some fuel for the fire. In three red counties, they found about 5,500 ballots that had not been scanned or uploaded. It reduced Bidens' margin of victory by about 1,200, to just shy of 13,000.

  • Gabriel Sterling:

    We have seen nothing that indicates that there is a high percentage or such a high percentage that it would change the outcome of the vote. Our goal is to have the cleanest possible election.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    In the trenches of this epic ballot count, the assignment to deliver on that promise falls to election directors, like Kristi Royston in Gwinnett County, an Atlanta exurb.

    Are you exhausted?

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Kristi Royston:

    You know, I'm tired, but I really think, when it comes to this, some sort of adrenaline kicks in.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    True to her profession, she is a process-loving perfectionist, and proud of it.

    So, all this paper going back and forth, folders, sheets, nothing gets lost?

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Kristi Royston:

    We have really good tracking systems. It's check and recheck and then document it, so that we can go back and see where we are.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    She doesn't mind scrutiny, but is growing weary of the accusations.

    Is it rigged?

  • Kristi Royston:

    I do not believe it's rigged. I have been doing this for 23 years. And for what the checks and balances and the security, I trust the system.

    Things are worth questioning. Things are worth making sure that there's accuracy in it. But I do think that, sometimes, you have to have faith and trust in the process and the people who are running it.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    So, there is more work ahead, Judy.

    While this audit verifies the outcome, it does not carry the legal authority to change the actual final tallies. After the state certifies the election — and that's supposed to happen on Friday — the Trump campaign has two business days — that puts it into Tuesday of next week — to request a formal recount.

    And that would be a re-scan of the ballots, and that would put those election workers at work going into the Thanksgiving holiday, because the margin here is so close, Judy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Just fascinating, Miles, taking us inside that process.

    So, Miles, one of the many other areas of your interest and expertise as a reporter is aviation.

    So, I have some questions about that.

    Today, we know that the FAA has cleared the Boeing 737 Max to fly again. Right now, we have one airline saying it may be ready to do that by the end of December, other airlines saying it may take more months than that.

    What will it take for these airlines to be comfortable flying this plane that has had problems in the past?

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Yes, for the airlines and the regulators, Judy, they have got a fair amount of work to do.

    And that's why you're not seeing this happen instantly. There's a 115-page airworthiness directive, which is kind of the law of the land for the FAA, which gives a whole series of changes to the aircraft. There will be two so-called angle-of-attack sensors feeding into the computer system, which has that piece of software designed to keep the aircraft from flying too far nose-high and stalling, which was at the root of those two crashes.

    There will be a whole bunch of maintenance to be done, because, after all, these aircraft have been sitting now for 20 months on the ground in desert locations primarily.

    And then there's an entire training regime that each airline has to come up with for its pilots, who initially, in the original days, didn't know anything about this system, which was the problem.

    So, there's a fair amount of work ahead. American will go first. Then you're going to see United and then Southwest.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, meantime, Miles, we are hearing from some family members of those who perished in those crashes say they are concerned that this maybe is moving too fast.

    They're raising questions about whether the culture that allowed this to happen may not have changed enough.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Yes, it's hard to change culture at huge organizations of any kind, and in particularly complex systems like you see with aircraft manufacturing such as Boeing.

    But I did speak with one of the attorneys representing some of these families, Mary Schiavo, just a little while ago. And the families are very upset about the fact that, despite all the public relations side of this and what Boeing is presenting to the general public, the attorneys are still trying to blame the pilots for those two crashes, not accepting any blame on the part of the corporation, on the part of Boeing, for the crashes.

    That might be a good legal position, but it leaves the families very upset about what's happening right now. And they — they're expressing great concerns about the safety of the aircraft.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And finally, Miles, FAA today saying anything about not grounding the 737 Max after the first fatal accident?

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Yes, this has been the biggest tragedy to me.

    After that first accident, you knew you had a systemwide problem that had catastrophic consequences, and the FAA chose not to ground the aircraft.

    Today, the FAA administrator, Stephen Dickson, told me — and he's actually flown the Max, the improved 737 Max. He is an airline captain. He said, yes, in retrospect, they probably should have done that. But he says, at the time, they didn't have enough information.

    He made a pitch — and this is an important thing — that, as time goes on, and there are more regulations which require streaming of data from aircraft, we will have the kind of information we need to make these decisions more quickly in the future. And that's something to push for in the future, Judy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    All right, Miles O'Brien on two major stories today.

    Thank you, Miles.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    You're welcome, Judy.

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