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Election Skeptics Push Georgia County to Count Ballots by Hand

Spalding County’s election board voted last month to require a manual tally before results are certified, but experts are concerned about the accuracy and efficiency of a hand count.

Driven by deep doubts about Dominion voting machines, conservative election critics are seeking a rudimentary remedy in Georgia: counting ballots by hand.

The hand-counting movement recently won approval in Spalding County south of Atlanta, where the local election board voted last month to require a manual tally before results from computer-scanned ballots can be certified. Activists are pressuring many other Republican-run counties to do the same.

But the supposedly simple proposal comes with several problems, say election experts and officials.

Human counts are often less accurate and take longer than machine tabulations, especially in high-turnout elections with dozens of races on the ballot, according to several studies. Opponents of the idea say election procedures should strive to build voter confidence rather than empower partisan skeptics.

In addition, hand-counting ballots won’t eliminate optical scanning machines, which are required by state law for official results. A manual recount would function more like an audit to check the tally of scanners, which rely on QR codes on paper ballots printed by voting touchscreens.

Still, supporters of hand counts say they want to abandon election technology based on concerns that Georgia’s voting machines could be hacked, computer-printed ballots could be manipulated or programming errors could be miscounted.

“So many of us don’t trust the machines. We would feel better if we would go to verifiable hand-counted ballots,” Anna deBlanc, a Butts County resident, told the State Election Board during public comments this month. “We don’t know the source code. We’ve had years and years of complaints about the machines.”

There’s no evidence that Georgia’s voting equipment has ever been manipulated in an election, and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger has said the risk of hacking is remote. A miscount in a DeKalb County Commission race last year was caused by programming mistakes that were corrected during a manual recount.

“Conspiracy theories about our elections have become the basis for a bad-faith push to use a method of counting ballots that doesn’t make our elections more transparent or more secure,” said Hannah Fried, executive director for the advocacy group All Voting Is Local. “Hand-counting is a tedious and monotonous task, and human beings aren’t good at tedious and monotonous tasks.”

Georgia’s results of the 2020 presidential election were counted twice by machine and once by hand during an audit of all 5 million ballots cast. All three counts showed Democrat Joe Biden defeated Republican Donald Trump by about 12,000 votes.

The hand-counting effort has spread beyond Georgia to counties in states including Arizona, Nevada and Wisconsin, Fried said.

Activists seeking hand counts say they’re a commonsense response to voters’ concerns about election integrity, which exploded after Trump claimed the 2020 presidential election was rigged and his supporters believed his conspiracy-laden accusations of fraud, none of which stood up in court challenges or investigations.

“Hand-counting the ballots ensures the tabulations from the machines are accurate,” said Holly Kesler, Georgia coordinator for the advocacy group Citizens Defending Freedom. “... All electronics have issues, and applying a simple accounting process is not a conspiracy theory, it is to ensure we have accurate elections.”

Hand counts have value as a way to verify machine results, but manual tallies shouldn’t be the primary source of results, said Joseph Kirk, elections supervisor for Bartow County. He audits each election by hand-counting every ballot cast in at least one race, and he’s never found a significant discrepancy.

“Frankly, folks can’t count large numbers of anything accurately. That’s why we use machines,” Kirk said. “If we’re focused on using a hand count to verify machine tabulation, I think that’s a good idea. If we’re focused on using hand counts in place of electronic tabulation, I have a lot of concerns.”

In Spalding County, the election board voted 3-1 on a motion to require hand counts and withhold certification of elections until discrepancies are resolved.

The board hasn’t yet decided on how hand counts would be performed, how much they’d cost or how they’d get done before certification deadlines the Monday after election day.

“We are responsible for election integrity in Spalding County. I believe that by counting the human-readable part of the receipt that we get from the voting machines, the voter can verify what is written on them,” Republican board member James Newland said before last month’s vote. “If it does not verify the count by the machine, then we cannot certify the election.”

Dominion Voting Systems said its elections equipment, which is used statewide in Georgia, is accurate and trustworthy.

“More than two years after the 2020 election, no credible evidence has ever been presented to any court or authority that voting machines did anything other than count votes accurately and reliably in all states,” Dominion wrote in a statement. “Our customers’ certified systems remain secure thanks in part to the many robust operational and procedural safeguards that exist to protect elections.”

Elections across the United States are usually counted by machines, in part because of lengthy ballots filled with many local, state and federal races at once. Countries that rely on hand counts, such as in France’s presidential elections, generally put only one or two races on the ballot at once.

Academic research shows that hand counting is less accurate than machine counts. A study by four political scientists found higher error rates in hand-counted ballots in Wisconsin races in 2011 and 2016, and an experiment by Rice University indicated that human counts of two races on 120 ballots provided the correct results just 57.5 percent of the time.

Under a Georgia election law passed this year, audits are required for at least one statewide contest after each election. Previously, state law only required audits after general elections every two years.

Counties are allowed to conduct additional audits as long as they don’t delay certification of elections and comply with state laws that require machine tabulations as well, said Mike Hassinger, a spokesman for the secretary of state’s office.

“Secretary Raffensperger supports election audits, has advocated for increasing their frequency and supports the additional level of scrutiny audits bring to ensure public trust in the accuracy of Georgia elections,” Hassinger said.

©2023 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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