Election officials already have enough to handle as the fight against disinformation continues. Now some states and local jurisdictions, spurred on by baseless conspiracy theories about the 2020 election, are considering legislation that would replace all machine tabulated election night results with hand-counting paper ballots – legislation that’s potentially nightmarish for election officials.
Any jurisdiction that can easily hand count ballots on election night should keep doing it. According to data collected by our team, only 0.6 percent of registered voters live in jurisdictions where ballots are currently hand counted. Many of these 800 jurisdictions are single towns or precincts in states like Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont and Wisconsin. And there’s a good reason why hand-counting is rare and primarily found in smaller jurisdictions: it’s incredibly resource intensive, particularly in large jurisdictions and in any election where multiple races appear on the ballot (sometimes upwards of 50 races in some election years).
There is a time, place, and purpose for hand counts, like when conducting post-election audits or checking close races. Verified Voting advocates for a practical solution for the many jurisdictions that count paper ballots electronically to ensure the accuracy of the initial vote counts – using rigorous, scientifically-sound post-election audits to ensure that the machines counted the paper ballots accurately, which includes actual hand counts of a percentage of the ballots. We provide advice and assistance to election officials around the country in conducting post-election risk-limiting audits (RLAs). RLAs allow jurisdictions to save time and resources by checking more ballots hand-to-eye when needed in close contests, and fewer ballots in contests with wider margins. RLAs can trigger a full hand recount if discrepancies or errors are found.
Hand-counting all ballots on election night is not a magical solution for election security — it can introduce its own types of risks. In a recent op-ed for the Des Moines Register (read: We shouldn’t abandon machine-counted election ballots), Verified Voting Board of Advisors member Doug Jones offers a historical perspective of the logistical and security concerns with hand-counting ballots, including human error and even outright fraud. While Jones acknowledges that ballot counting machines also aren’t impervious to threats, he argues in their favor: “The electronic ballot counting machines currently on the market are vulnerable to various attacks, but when they are operated properly, they count very accurately.”
The Washington Post also outlines the problem with hand counts:
Experts say hand-counting ballots is so impractical that, if adopted, election results would be thrown into unimaginable chaos, inviting mass human error and delaying results — and potentially giving bad actors more time to slow or even block certification. Time and again, post-election audits have confirmed that machine counts are extremely accurate, and experts have said that there is no proof machines were hacked in 2020.
Rigorous post-election audits, when combined with other strong election security measures, are faster, more cost-effective, and more reliable than the extreme election night hand count measures being proposed in reaction to election misinformation. Voters and legislators concerned with election security should focus their efforts not on election night hand counts but on needed and effective measures such as implementing routine audits, supporting election officials, combating misinformation, and increasing funding for election infrastructure.