Anti-Democracy Actors Are Weaponizing Hand Counting to Influence Elections – and Their Influence is Spreading.

By Hannah Fried, all voting is local

october 26, 2023

Last month, the California state legislature passed a bill that calls for most ballots to be counted using state-approved machines, after several officials in a small Northern California county attempted to replace machines with hand counting for future elections. While this is a significant step for California, many other states have not been as successful in preventing attacks on our elections system.

On the face of it, hand counting every ballot may sound reliable and secure, yet it is anything but. While there are limited, highly controlled circumstances where hand counts can be used to verify election results, the problem lies in the push for counting all ballots by hand instead of by machine. Based on nothing but conspiracy theories, the growing movement to replace machine tabulation of ballots with hand counts threatens the ability of voters to elect the leaders of their choice.

Since the 2020 elections, extremists have ramped up their attacks on our democracy – leveraging lies about the security of our election systems to support a range of policies that threaten free and fair elections. Unsubstantiated doubts about the results of the 2020 elections have been cited as the reason for eliminating many mail ballot return drop boxes in Georgia and attempts by Wisconsin legislators to oust the nonpartisan chief elections official. Hand counting every ballot is no different. 

Full stop, counting ballots by hand does nothing to make our elections fairer or more transparent. Rather, it is a tedious and monotonous task prone to human error. Participants in a Rice University experiment counted ballots accurately only 58 percent of the time. The same study also found that it took participants three-quarters of an hour to count a single race with 120 ballots. Last year, Esmeralda County, Nevada, which has fewer than 750 residents, became the last county across the state to certify its primary results, nearly missing the deadline for certification because of the many hours it took to hand count a few hundred ballots. In a moment when disinformation is flourishing, respect for our election results depends on accuracy and speed.

Hand counting is also resource-intensive. The Bipartisan Policy Center estimates that to conduct a hand count of every ballot in a state the size of Michigan would require a 300% increase in the election workforce – in a year when election workers are leaving in droves. Even single-race hand recounts cost counties hundreds of thousands of dollars to tally the votes in just that one contest. Meanwhile, a recent letter to Congress from more than 100 civil rights groups described “urgent gaps in [elections] equipment, personnel, and facilities.” 

Finally, hand count isn’t necessary. Machine tabulation of votes became the gold standard for the very reason that hand counting is so flawed. We already have ample protocols in place to ensure our election equipment – including ballot tabulators – is properly programmed and secure, and that the results they report are accurate.

Despite all of this, the movement to hand count all ballots is proliferating. Recently, lawmakers in Nevada voted to adopt a new regulation that allows county election clerks to implement hand counting in parallel with machine tabulation, as long as they have a certain number of staffers and a plan to do so. These regulations do not indicate how ballots will be protected and do not provide adequate security measures.

Overall, voting machines remain the most reliable way to handle ballots, and we cannot risk allowing conspiracies and lies to drive us to adopt systems that would endanger the foundations of our democracy. Those with power over our elections — lawmakers and election officials – must listen to and embrace the research on hand counting, dispel false attacks on proven systems, and support machine tabulation. Such oversight will disarm anti-democracy actors and reduce the possibility of introducing practices that only cause chaos. Those in power must wield it responsibly.

Only when we foreclose all legal and administrative pathways that would allow hand counting all ballots over machine tabulation can we begin to protect the foundation of our nation’s democracy.

Hannah Fried is a co-founder and the executive director of All Voting is Local.