Become a Votebeat sponsor

The drive to hand count ballots is growing. The GOP could stop it.

Here are the consequences when Republican activists in Texas, California, Arizona, and elsewhere push local officials to ditch machines and count ballots by hand.

A closeup of a woman’s hand as she uses a pen to mark a lined, paper form
A volunteer tallies votes during a hand count training in Nye County, Nevada, in October 2022. (David Becker for the Washington Post / Getty Images)

A version of this post was originally distributed in Votebeat’s free weekly newsletter. Sign up to get it delivered to your inbox every Saturday.

If you’ve noticed a lot of coverage of the movement to hand-count ballots lately, there’s a reason for that: This crusade is becoming a real problem.

Like a lot of movements that seek to reshape elections based on an extremist agenda (see the results of the ERIC conspiracy theories), the far-right push to abandon voting machines in favor of manually tallying votes has consequences. Usually, local consequences.

This is why I wrote an essay in the New York Times this week pointing out that voters in the most conservative parts of America are the very people who stand to be disenfranchised by the costly, laborious, logistically difficult practice of hand-counting ballots. You can read the article (un-paywalled) with this gift link.

And now, our fearless Texas reporter, Natalia Contreras, is out with yet another tale of a town torn asunder by a poorly conceived plan to hand count ballots. I didn’t mention Kerr County explicitly in my essay, but it’s one of the places I had in mind when I wrote this: 

“Most local movements to hand-count ballots lose steam because, in most counties, there is enough diversity of political thought to create an opening for the introduction of facts. But where there is no pushback — in those reddest of red counties — some advocates for hand counting have managed to wreak havoc.”

Kerr County, where 75 percent of registered voters cast their ballot for Donald Trump in 2020, is the type of place you might think about when you think about the Texas Hill Country: a beautiful, green place of rolling hills and open land. It’s become attractive to the thousands of people who have moved to Texas from elsewhere, seeking salvation in a redder space.

There, a local Republican commissioner — who moved to the area from Ohio when he retired — is leading the charge. In the past several months, he’s held demonstrations that look more like pep rallies. One of them featured Tina Peters. Yes, that one

So far, the stacked roster of enthusiastic events hasn’t worked. The rest of the commissioners, all Republican, have rejected Paces’ demands for hand counting.

But that doesn’t mean they’ve escaped the problems he’s caused.

The longtime election administrator, who runs the tax assessor’s office, refused to administer elections in the environment Paces created. The county then transferred election duties to the county clerk, who resigned her office entirely. Now, the county’s 40,000 voters will have their election managed by a person who’s never managed one. And it’s going to cost a lot of money to make that change. 

And that’s the real risk, right? Hand counting is such a tremendously misguided idea that even counties that adopt it will eventually have to give it up, but along the way the systems they’ve spent decades building up will be destroyed. Here are some examples:

  • Cochise County, Arizona, which had its elections director quit before suing the county for hostile workplace conditions. They paid her $130,000. Her replacement recently left as well, citing the impossible nature of his job.
  • Nye County, Nevada, where a local elected official led dozens of volunteers in a hand-counting exercise that they never completed. After the first day, he estimated one fourth of the ballots had been miscounted.
  • Shasta County, California, where hand-counting plans are ongoing despite the state legislature recently making it illegal in response to this county’s efforts.  The county has spent millions canceling a Dominion contract, getting new machines, and expanding office space and staff to make room for the move. They will likely never hand count a ballot.

In Shasta County, Cathy Darling-Allen, who has served as county clerk since 2004, has consistently spoken out against the plan to hand count ballots there. But as the only countywide elected Democrat, she’s easy to ignore. 

Here’s who is not easy to ignore: these activists’ fellow Republicans. 

One of the most eye-opening reactions I’ve seen to Votebeat’s coverage of the hand-counting movement was from a county GOP treasurer in Toombs County, Georgia. Abe Glaser and other local Republicans, suspicious of cheating in 2020, had been exploring a move to hand counting ballots in their county. When he reached out to his local state representative to advocate for the practice, she showed him an article I’d written — a rundown of why hand counting leads to such problematic outcomes

“Your article convinced me that hand counting is out of the question,” he emailed me.

This summer, he quoted large chunks of the article in his own blog. “Before I looked into this subject, I was all for going back to paper ballots. I thought hand counting with supervision from all political parties would make for fair and legal elections,” he wrote. “Huseman’s logic is hard to refute.”

Across the country, these efforts are belying the party’s core beliefs in small government and low taxes. They are also tearing apart elections departments that previously functioned well and had earned the trust of local voters. Now, the GOP risks the very real chance of disenfranchising voters in their most diehard counties.

What happens next is up to them.

Back Then

For this week’s history, a pretty good argument for machines that has nothing to do with budgets and timing: It made people in Kentucky stop shooting each other. Kentucky Secretary of State Michael Adams takes it from here: 

New From Votebeat

From Votebeat Texas: Push to hand count ballots throws a Texas county’s election administration into chaos

From Votebeat Arizona: Three seconds to spot fraud? Here’s what I found testing Arizona’s ballot signature checking process.

From Votebeat Pennsylvania: Effort to move Pa.’s 2024 primary date appears to be dead due to legislative impasse

In Other Voting News

  • The Republican National Committee has announced it will recruit on-the-ground “election integrity directors” along with tens of thousands of poll workers for 2024. RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel says the goal is to “hold Democrats accountable for bad laws that make voting less secure,” Axios reports
  • The Supreme Court heard oral arguments this week on a Republican-drawn map in South Carolina that was overturned by a lower court for being racially discriminatory. Court watchers speculate that the conservative justices seem poised to reinstate the map, which moved 30,000 Black voters out of a congressional district. 
  • In Texas, a federal judge ruled that Galveston County’s most recent map for commissioner districts marginalized Black and Latino voters in their representation on the Commissioners Court, in violation of the Voting Rights Act. The county plans to appeal to the Fifth Circuit. Read the full story at the Texas Tribune.
  • Two Democratic groups in North Carolina filed suit this week against Senate bill 747 only hours after it went into effect. They are seeking most immediate relief as it relates to changes the law made to same day voter registration. Under the new law — which had been vetoed by the state’s Democratic governor before his veto was overridden by the GOP-dominated legislature— those registering to vote on election day will be required to bring additional forms of identification. Their ballots can be canceled if they do not submit this information in time, Politico reports. 
  • It’s that time of year, I guess, so here’s some more court news: This week a federal judge in Georgia declined to block voting restrictions that have come as a result of SB 202, a sweeping voting bill passed after the 2020 election. Read more at Courthouse News
  • The Alabama Reflector is out with an in-depth look on Alabama’s proposed replacement to ERIC, which the secretary of state has dubbed “AVID.” 
  • And, finally, look out folks — voting is happening. NOLA.com has a great photo series on the bustling election workers  rolling out voting machines and putting up polling locations in New Orleans for today’s gubernatorial primary.

Jessica Huseman is Votebeat’s editorial director and is based in Dallas. Contact Jessica at jhuseman@votebeat.org.

The Latest

A Votebeat-Spotlight PA review finds sloppy record keeping in tests on voting machines. Lawmakers are taking note.

They’re suing for the right to cast absentee ballots electronically, but security concerns stand in the way.

Mail voting has been under attack since 2020. This is how the state secures the system from fraud, and the grey areas remaining in the law.

Peggy Judd, facing felony charges over 2022 election actions, says she feels betrayed by people who promised help with legal defense.

Where is the first tally supposed to happen? Lawmakers scramble to clarify their intent.

Groups including the NAACP want the full 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to rule on the issue. A decision is not expected before the April 23 primary.