The vast majority of candidates running to become their states' chief election officers oppose hand counting ballots, a laborious and error-prone process that has gained favor among some Republicans embracing conspiracy theories about voting machines.
An Associated Press survey of major party secretary of state candidates in the 24 states found broad skepticism about hand counting among election professionals of all ideological stripes. Of 23 Republicans who responded to the survey, 13 clearly said they opposed implementing a statewide hand count of ballots instead of a machine count.
GOP candidates in Arizona and New Mexico have previously endorsed the idea of a hand count. But others cautioned it was a dangerous road to follow.
“Hand counting ballots is a process that requires time, manpower, and is prone to inaccuracies,” Kansas Secretary of State Scott Schwab, a Republican who is seeking re-election this year, wrote in response to the AP survey.
The desire to hand count ballots stems from conspiracy theories spread by former President Donald Trump and his allies that the electronic machines that tabulated the results of the 2020 presidential election were rigged. Now some Republicans inspired by his election lies seek to expand or require hand counting of all ballots.
Counting by hand takes longer, requires large groups of people to examine ballots, and has been found by multiple studies to be less reliable than using voting machines.
“The reason the U.S. moved to counting machines is due to both human error and fraud with hand counts, so we looked for a better way to count the vote,” said Kim Crockett, the Republican nominee for secretary of state in Minnesota, in an email. “The error rate for hand counts is higher than the error rate for ballot counters in most cases.”
Crockett, who has called the 2020 election “rigged” and echoed some of Trump’s other election falsehoods, also stressed that she thinks her state’s voting machines still need further inspection.
The process came under scrutiny last week when rural Nye County in Nevada embarked on an unprecedented full hand count of this year's midterm votes, starting with mailed ballots and those cast early in-person. The process was painstakingly slow until it was halted by the state’s supreme court over concerns that early vote tallies could be leaked publicly.
While the AP survey found most candidates strongly favor machine tabulators, two GOP secretary of state candidates in politically pivotal states — Arizona and New Mexico — want to shift to the unreliable method of counting ballots. A third in yet another swing state, Nevada, has backed Nye County's effort and voiced support for making that sort of procedure standard statewide.
In Arizona, Republican State Rep. Mark Finchem, who is running for secretary of state, joined his party’s nominee for governor, Kari Lake, in filing a lawsuit seeking to outlaw the use of any machine to record or tabulate votes. The case was dismissed by a judge who levied sanctions against the Republicans.
In New Mexico, GOP secretary of state nominee Audrey Trujillo has said she wants widespread hand counting of votes.
“Hand count my ballot. We already have paper ballots,” she said in an interview on the video platform Rumble. “If we had that, I guarantee you tons more people would go out and vote.”
Neither Finchem nor Trujillo responded to the AP's survey.
Nevada's Republican secretary of state candidate has offered conflicting responses. A campaign spokesman for Republican nominee Jim Marchant told the AP that Marchant would be fine with a machine count as long as there also are paper ballots, which are universally used in Nevada. But the prior month, Marchant told the AP in a separate interview, “My goal is to go to a hand count paper ballot system.”
Nevada's current secretary of state, Republican Barbara Cegavske, told interim Nye County Clerk Mark Kampf to halt the hand count of early arriving mailed ballots and early in-person votes until after polls close Nov. 8 following a ruling late last week from the state's high court. The state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union had sought to halt the hand count over concerns that observers could hear the results as they were announced, risking a potential public leak of early returns.
The nascent hand-count had been riddled with problems on its first day, with repeated delays and errors among the volunteer staff of 12 teams of five split into two different shifts. They got through 900 of 1,950 ballots on the first day, with one volunteer lamenting the slow pace: “I can’t believe it’s two hours to get through 25.”
An AP reporter observed two teams of five taking as long as three hours to count 50 ballots. When teams realized they had mismatched tallies for certain candidates, they would stop and recount the ballots for those candidates again. That effort followed a hand count in another rural Nevada county, Esmeralda, where election workers in June spent more than seven hours hand-tallying the 317 primary ballots.
Kampf said the teams improved during the second day.
Eleven candidates, mostly Republicans, did not respond to the AP's survey, including one of the most prominent election conspiracy theorists running for the position — Republican Kristina Karamo in Michigan, a community college instructor who has spreading the lie that voting machines in 2020 were rigged.
“Election deniers are using the language of election integrity to dismantle the actual infrastructure of election integrity,” said David Becker, the co-author of “The Big Truth,” a book about the risks of Trump’s voting lies, and executive director of the Center for Election Innovation & Research. “If you want inaccurate results that take a really long time and cost a lot, then hand counting is your solution.”
Voting machines are routinely checked before and after voting to make sure they count accurately. The post-election test usually involves pulling a sample of random ballots and counting them by hand to see if the automated tally differs.
But repeated studies — in voting and other fields such as banking and retail — have shown that people make far more errors counting than do machines, especially when reaching larger and larger numbers. They’re also vastly slower.
Jennifer Morrell, a former local election official in Colorado and Utah, noted that hand counts are enormously labor-intensive. The election consulting firm where she works estimated that in a typical-sized jurisdiction of 270,000 voters, it would take 1,300 people to count the ballots within seven days.
That’s because the typical ballot has dozens of races on it, which machines tabulate automatically but humans would have to count line by line, page by page.
“Voting equipment is uniform and efficient in a way that humans will never be,” Morrell said.
Associated Press statehouse reporters from around the U.S. contributed to this report.
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Nicholas Riccardi, The Associated Press