Opinion | Counting Ballots by Hand Is a Bad Idea


The Republican Party appears poised to stand by and say nothing while its most die-hard supporters risk disenfranchising themselves and others.

There’s a right-wing movement afoot pressuring local governments to manually tally votes on ballots without any of the machines that make this work quick and precise. One particularly determined man is even traveling from red county to red county in a branded R.V., preaching the good word to county councils and election boards.

Counting ballots by hand is still very rare in the United States. And studies and myriad real-world examples have repeatedly shown that counting by hand is a uniquely bad idea in the context of American democracy. In the United States, ballots often have several dozen choices on them for federal, state and local elections — not just a couple of options. And humans are notoriously poor at tedious, repetitive tasks.

Imagine, if you will, a truck full of paper currency. You and a few lucky friends have to count the money, which has come in a variety of denominations, by hand. You have to finish in a matter of days, and you also have to keep the bills in order under penalty of law. You can’t use a counting machine, and you can’t even use a program like Excel to do the summations. How many friends do you think you would need? Do you think you would all arrive at the same totals?

Votes, like dollar bills, would very likely be lost or miscounted. But, here, your vote is not insured and will not be returned by your bank. Such a change has the potential to harm those counties’ ability to effectively and reliably tally votes for years after the fact: Counting votes involves budgets, contracts and more.

It is a more cataclysmic version of the titanic mistake that was the Republican Party’s refusal to actively refute former President Donald Trump’s false claims about voting by mail. He spent most of 2020 banging on about how unsafe he felt the practice was, then picked up the talk even more after he lost that November. That left Georgia Republicans — still eager to get their party to turn out in January runoffs — in a weird spot.

Since the Georgia Republicans lost in late 2020, and after a number of Republicans who echoed Mr. Trump’s claims lost high-profile midterm elections in 2022, key party officials have waged a public information campaign to support mail-in voting. “I have said this over and over again. There were many in 2020 saying, ‘Don’t vote by mail, don’t vote early.’ And we have to stop that,” Ronna McDaniel, the chair of the Republican National Committee, said in a televised interview on Fox News in December of last year.

But faced with counties potentially destroying their own election systems from within, the party has said little, even though it would be relatively easy to nip this in the bud.

Most local movements to hand-count ballots lose steam because, in most counties, there is enough diversity of political thought to create an opening for the introduction of facts. But where there is no pushback — in those reddest of red counties — some advocates for hand counting have managed to wreak havoc.

In Nye County, Nev., a local official first attempted to throw out a machine count of the county’s 20,000 or so ballots in 2022 before ultimately agreeing instead to do a “parallel” hand count. After the first day, that official, who’d advocated for the whole process, estimated that the volunteers had miscounted a quarter of the ballots.

Other places, like Cochise County, Ariz., proposed spending serious cash on the process without even getting to test it out. While commissioners voted to move forward with hand counting, one group sued on the grounds that hand counting was illegal under state law. Late last year, a judge agreed. Still, the elections director resigned after saying she had been pressured to participate in the illegal hand count, and the county ultimately paid her $130,000 after she filed a lawsuit about toxic workplace environment.

Folks in Arizona are still arguing about the legality and feasibility of hand counting, even though perhaps the best example of why it’s such a bad idea occurred in their own state. You may recall that a company called Cyber Ninjas was hired by Arizona Senate Republicans to recount all of Maricopa County’s 2020 ballots. Despite blowing the $150,000 budget by millions of dollars and taking months to finish their report, the C.E.O. of the company would later admit his numbers were “screwy” and that even he couldn’t make sense of the data they’d collected.

Counties trying to do this on their own — within the deadlines imposed by law ahead of election certification — would not have nearly as much room for error.

And once jurisdictions find themselves with a warehouse full of volunteers squinting at ballots, it’s hard to walk that back. Switching to hand counting can cost real money in places that don’t always have a ton to spend. Ending long-term contracts with voting machine companies early, while denigrating their product, could also burn bridges with the small number of companies that provide and service election equipment, relationships that are difficult to rebuild. And if voters see how severely their elections have been affected — well, that’s a bell that’s hard to un-ring.

Consider, for example, Shasta County, Calif. There, the county government opted to end a voting machine rental contract with Dominion Voting Systems — an action that, alone, cost more than $50,000 — to pursue hand counting beginning later this year. It was all for naught. Last week, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a ban on most hand counting.

“That equipment has been picked up. It’s gone, and it’s not coming back,” Cathy Darling Allen, the county’s election administrator, told me. “The money isn’t coming back either.”

The city of Redding, in the southwest of the county, was told to expect the cost of administering its local elections to nearly quadruple.

Ms. Darling Allen is one of the few elected Democrats in Shasta County government. She’s held her role for years, but her job doesn’t look anything like it used to.

She has hired additional staff members, and plans to recruit and train dozens of volunteers to process the more than 100,000 ballots expected to be cast in the county in 2024. Both hand-counting trial runs were fraught with counting and organizational errors, as counters realized just how much work they had ahead of them. “It’s not 69,000 ballots. It’s 2.8 million ovals,” she said.

Simultaneously, she’s training volunteers on the new voting equipment she found for the county after they decided to ditch Dominion.

Ms. Darling Allen has, of course, been sounding the alarm for months. But she’s easily drowned out. The Republican Party — on the other hand — would not be so easily ignored.

Jessica Huseman is the editorial director of Votebeat, a nonprofit, nonpartisan newsroom covering election administration and voting in Arizona, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Texas.

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