After more than a year of baselessly questioning the results of the 2020 election, some Republicans are casting doubt on how ballots are counted, part of a broader movement inspired by former President Donald Trump’s lies about election fraud that is undermining confidence in America’s vote.
In at least three states – Utah, New Hampshire and Texas – Republicans have pushed for banning traditional ballot scanning machines in favor of hand-counting paper ballots, an antiquated process that experts fear could inject error into an election system where very little has been found. Critics also worry that the inevitable delay in results from hand counting would be an opportunity for those looking to sow doubt about the outcome of future contests.
Republicans have already seized on Trump’s unfounded claims to launch partisan audits and enact restrictive voting laws ahead of this year’s midterms. And now they’re targeting the tabulation of votes by suggesting, without evidence, that there’s a problem – even in places where Trump or down-ballot Republicans won in 2020.
One GOP county chair in Texas, for example, said he has “concerns” about the election, even though Trump won the Lone Star State by more than 630,000 votes, and there’s no evidence that fraud or irregularities influenced results there or anywhere else.
“I trust people. I don’t trust electronics,” Daniel Rogers, chair of the Republican Party in Potter County in the Texas Panhandle, told CNN in explaining his push for hand counting ballots. “I have computers; they don’t always do what we want.”
Returning to hand counting ballots is not a new concept. Punch-card ballots, which were miscounted by voting machines in Florida due to hanging bits of paper (“hanging chads”) became a point of contention in the disputed 2000 election. Since then, voting machines have come under increased scrutiny, which Republicans have intensified after Trump began launching baseless allegations of fraud.
But the premise behind moving back to hand-counting – that it’s somehow more secure – isn’t supported by much evidence.
Douglas Jones, a retired professor of computer science at the University of Iowa and a voting machine expert, said there are rare instances in which voting machines could cause major election issues. But it usually takes a human to mess things up.
“In the United States, the mechanical voting machine doesn’t make any clerical errors unless someone makes an error in configuring the machine, and then they are huge,” Jones told CNN.
Hand counting only works in elections where there is one issue on the ballot, like special elections or in off-cycle election years, he said. In larger elections where there are multiple candidates and positions to fill, Jones said, voting machines are best because hand counts are then subject to “clerical errors,” such as the possibility of election officials forgetting to include a precinct in the final results or counting a precinct twice.
Jones characterized the isolated instances of vote discrepancies that some Republicans have seized upon – none of which have influenced results – as no more than “sloppiness.”
“They tend to be reporting sloppiness that’s quite real. But it doesn’t amount to a systematic deal. It amounts to people under high pressure, trying to get things done quickly and making mistakes,” Jones said.
Those “same mistakes you can make when you’re hand counting,” he added.
Republicans seize on small-town New Hampshire controversy
Republicans in the New Hampshire state House have pre-filed proposed legislation that would ban the use of ballot-scanning machines in favor of hand counting ballots.
State Rep. Norman Silber, one of the sponsors, told CNN that the bill is about restoring what he thinks is lost confidence in the voting process. But the bill is sparking criticism from Democrats, like state Rep. Matt Wilhelm, who told The New York Times last month that drawing out time to announce results could create more opportunities for challenges to the election’s legitimacy.
“If they’ve got an additional window of time of hours, days, weeks when Granite Staters don’t know the results of the election that they just participated in, that’s going to cast doubt on our democratic institutions,” Wilhelm told the newspaper.
In making the case for the bill, Silber pointed to a discrepancy over 2020 state legislative results in the small town of Windham, which Trump and his allies had seized on to cast doubt about the election. (Trump lost the Granite State by nearly 60,000 votes – a much more significant deficit than the votes in question in Windham.)
The controversy began when a hand recount requested by one of the losing candidates found that decades-old machines had undercounted ballots for four Republican state legislative candidates by about 300 votes and overcounted by 99 the votes for a Democratic candidate. Those small discrepancies, however, didn’t make any difference in the overall results – the four Republicans still won and the Democrat lost.
GOP Gov. Chris Sununu then signed a measure authorizing an audit, but even he said at the time that an isolated incident like the one in Windham was not a reason to worry about the state’s elections. “New Hampshire elections are safe, secure, and reliable,” he said last April. “Out of the hundreds of thousands of ballots cast this last year, we saw only very minor, isolated issues – which is proof our system works.”
The audit revealed the cause of the discrepancy to be “folds” through vote bubbles on some absentee ballots resulting from election officials using “a machine to fold absentee ballots,” according to a report from the secretary of state and attorney general’s offices.
“We found no basis to believe that the miscounts found in Windham indicate a pattern of partisan bias or a failed election,” read the state’s report.
And Deputy Secretary of State David Scanlan, a former Republican state representative, pushed back against the notion that the Windham incident was a problem with the scanning machines, saying it stemmed from the decision by the local election officials to use a “folding machine that was in the office” due to the large workload.
Under state law, towns and cities have the right to decide if they want to use ballot counting machines, according to Scanlan, but he added that vote-counting discrepancies are most likely to occur in a hand count.
Still, some voters in other Granite State towns like Hampton, Greenland and Kensington, have pushed to move to hand counting.
Douglas Wilson, who led the failed effort in Greenland, said in introducing his petition in November that he had “faith in poll workers and it’s the machines that are the problem.” Wilson pointed to concerns he had about the handling of memory cards and microchips inside the voting equipment and possible tampering.
But those doubts were quickly dispelled by the town’s chief elections officer, Dean Bouffard, who explained that memory cards and microchips are handled by election officials only and are tested and sealed before use. Bouffard also said that voting machines aren’t connected to any wireless network and thus can’t communicate through the internet. Greenland voted last month against banning voting machines with a final vote of 1,077 to 120.
AccuVote machines have been used in New Hampshire since the mid 1990s, according to Secretary of State’s office, and Scanlan said there’s no evidence any have been hacked, echoing Bouffard that they are “are stand-alone devices with no wireless capability, and all external ports have been disabled.”
Other voters like Hampton Selectman Regina Barnes have raised concerns over the age of the machine’s software, calling it a “big concern” at an October meeting.
Scanlan admitted to CNN that the software is old but that “he is not aware of any glitches,” saying the machines are “very accurate, provided the voter properly marks the ballot with them.”
Petition drive in Utah
A proposed ballot initiative in Utah, where Trump won handily in 2020, aims to return the state to in-person voting at local precincts, with all ballots, including absentee ballots, being hand counted by election judges on election night.
Utah is one of a handful of states that conducts its elections almost entirely by mail, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. All registered voters are sent a ballot without needing to request one. Most of the state uses ES&S machines for tabulating votes, according to Ryan Cowley, the state’s director of elections.
The initiative to ditch those machines is being spearheaded by Secure Vote Utah, an organization led by Lew Moore, who managed the 2008 GOP presidential campaign of former Texas Rep. Ron Paul.
Moore emphasized that he isn’t “making any allegations about anything that might have happened” in Utah or accusing anyone of “malfeasance.” But he went on to baselessly cast doubt on the machines tabulating votes.
“They’re just machines whirling around you. I mean, you don’t know what’s going on with these machines,” he said.
But Cowley does know. Every county conducts a pre-election test on its voting machines to ensure that they are properly reading ballots, he told CNN. And after an election, he added, each county performs a “public audit,” which takes about 1% of each county’s ballots and compares how the machines read the ballots with how the ballots were cast.
“There has never been a discrepancy in those totals and how those ballots were counted,” Cowley said.
Concerns about hand counts in Texas
Trump also won by a large margin in Texas, where Rogers, the county chairman, wanted the March Republican primary in his county to be counted by hand.
His proposal was met with surprise and logistical concerns from Melynn Huntley, the elections administrator for Potter County, who said the full count could take as long as 20 to 22 hours.
She also raised concerns that it would lead to confusion among voters because of rules about where primary voters could cast their ballots in the primary versus in the general election. Primary voters would have to go to their neighborhood polling place as opposed to voting centers around the state where any registered voter can go.
Rogers ultimately abandoned his plan after county commissioners failed to pass his resolution – and although his statement at the time acknowledged some of those same logistical concerns about GOP voters having to use two different voting methods in the primary and the general election – he hasn’t given up.
He has vowed to keep pushing for a hand-marked and hand-counted ballot process, repeating unfounded claims about its superior security.
“We will continue to further advocate for ideas and solutions voters can be confident in that require hand-marked ballots and are cost-effective, reliable, secure, and superior in preventing fraud,” said Rogers.
Regardless of Rogers’ efforts, some changes are coming to the county’s current Direct Recording Electronic system, in which voters make their choices on a digital terminal that records vote totals directly into computer memory. Huntley said the county is moving toward a voter verified paper system in which voters’ choices will include a paper back up. Mail-in voting is the only method that currently uses paper.
Amid its 2021 efforts to make voting harder in the state, the GOP-led legislature passed a bill that requires all counties to start moving toward voting machines that offer a paper trail by 2026.