A Georgia state judge on Friday ordered Fulton County to allow a group of local voters to inspect all 147,000 mail-in ballots cast in the 2020 election in response to a lawsuit alleging that officials accepted thousands of counterfeit ballots.

The decision marks the latest instance of a local government being forced to undergo a third-party inspection of its election practices amid baseless accusations promoted by President Donald Trump that fraud flipped the 2020 contest for President Biden.

The inspection in Fulton County, home to Atlanta, is likely to proceed differently than an audit underway in Maricopa County, Ariz., where Republican state senators ordered county election officials to hand over equipment and ballots to a private company called Cyber Ninjas for examination. That process has come under widespread criticism for lacking security measures and failing to follow the rigorous practices of government recounts. On Thursday, Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs (D) urged local officials to toss their machines after the audit is complete because their security is now in doubt.

More than six months after the 2020 presidential election, Arizona Senate Republicans are leading an audit of the 2.1 million ballots cast in Maricopa County. (Erin Patrick O'Connor/The Washington Post)

In Georgia, Superior Court Judge Brian Amero ruled on Friday that the nine plaintiffs and their experts could examine copies of the ballots but never touch the originals, which will remain in the possession of Fulton election officials. Further details of how the inspection will proceed are expected next week, said one of the plaintiffs, Garland Favorito.

The order for the new ballot inspection comes after Georgia officials did three separate audits of the vote last year, including a hand recount, which produced no evidence of widespread fraud.

Fulton County Board of Commissioners Chairman Robb Pitts said it was “outrageous” that the county “continues to be a target of those who cannot accept the results from last year’s election.”

“The fact remains that Fulton County safely and securely carried out an election in the midst of a public health pandemic,” Pitts said in a statement. “It’s a shame to see that the ‘Big Lie’ lives on and could cost the hardworking taxpayers of this county.”

A spokesman for Pitts said he plans to meet with the Fulton County attorney to “review all legal options” to block “this waste of taxpayer resources.”

Fulton County is one of numerous communities where local residents have recently pushed to revisit the 2020 election results, echoing Trump’s false claims of fraud.

In this case, filed in December, the plaintiffs are seeking a declaratory judgment that counterfeit balloting occurred in the county. The judge’s ruling Friday was part of the suit’s discovery process and allows the plaintiffs to examine the ballots for evidence of their claim.

Aunna Dennis, executive director of Common Cause Georgia, said the lawsuit is another attempt to sow doubt about the 2020 election results — and raise “lots of money” in the process. She suggested that the examination would be used to try to justify more voting restrictions in the state after the GOP-majority legislature passed a sweeping voting law earlier this spring.

“It’s a cynical strategy,” she said in a statement. “Create artificial ‘doubt’ about our election processes, and then use that doubt to make voting harder for the voters you don’t think will vote for you.”

But Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R) said the decision would bring a welcome layer of transparency to an election fraught with accusations.

“Fulton County has a long-standing history of election mismanagement that has understandably weakened voters’ faith in its system,” Raffensperger said in a statement. “Allowing this audit provides another layer of transparency and citizen engagement.”

His support for the ballot inspection came despite the fact that his office months ago investigated the allegations, which included reports from poll workers of “pristine” mailed ballots that had no crease from folding. State election officials found no evidence of fraud, noting some mail-in ballots mailed from overseas voters or deployed military personnel arrive heavily damaged and are copied onto unfolded paper to be counted.

In a phone call on Jan. 2, President Trump insisted he won the state and threatened vague legal consequences. Here are excerpts from the call. (Obtained by The Washington Post)

Raffensperger also submitted an amicus brief in the lawsuit, urging the judge not to hand over ballots directly to the plaintiffs because of provisions in state law requiring election officials to protect the confidentiality, security and integrity of ballots after an election. But he took no position on the underlying case.

Favorito, one of the plaintiffs, said his organization, Voter GA, is a nonpartisan group promoting election integrity. He said the lawsuit has been paid for with small-dollar donations from grass-roots supporters, not by large national groups.

“Our cause is to have honest elections,” he said in an interview Friday. “You cannot have that when people tell you what the results are and you can’t prove it and they can’t prove it.”

He said he voted for Don Blankenship, the Constitutional Party candidate, not Trump, in last year’s presidential election. But he also noted that some experts who have worked on similar efforts on behalf of pro-Trump groups may also participate in the examination in Georgia — including J. Hutton Pulitzer, who has served as a consultant in Maricopa and who some Trump supporters pushed to conduct an audit in Windham, N.H.

Favorito said he expects to rely on paper experts to examine the ballot paper itself, as well as image-analysis experts and experienced auditors — including one, David Sawyer, who testified Friday that the state-run audit last year was flawed.

Alice Crites contributed to this report.