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Backed by Mike Lindell and mysterious benefactors, the push to hand-count ballots picks up speed

Across the country, grassroots groups inspired by big-name election influencers are pushing their election officials to get rid of machines. Those who have tried counting by hand proved it doesn’t work well.

A profile photo of a man with short brown hair and wearing a dark blue suit speaks at a podium with a giant American flag taking up the whole background.
Mike Lindell, CEO of MyPillow, speaks during the 2024 Conservative Political Action Conference meeting in Maryland. Since 2021, Lindell has been pushing his followers to convince their local election officials to hand-count ballots. (Mandel Ngan / AFP via Getty Images)

This article was co-published in partnership with The Guardian.

Votebeat is a nonprofit news organization reporting on voting access and election administration across the U.S. Sign up for our free newsletters here.

TEMPE, Ariz. — At the local discount cinema in this Phoenix suburb this winter, a crowd of about 100 took their seats for something different from the typical Sunday matinee.

The man standing in front of the big screen, Mark Cook, packed up his life months ago to drive around in an RV for a mission he said he was called to by God. Their elections had been stolen from them, he told the crowd, and it was time to take them back. He dubbed his cross-country venture the “hand count road show.”

“Elections belong to us,” he said, emphatically. “Say it!” a woman in the front of the theater yelled out.

The ultimate solution he offered the crowd: Eliminating mail-in voting, counting all ballots cast at polling places on the night of the election, and, most importantly, doing the counting by hand.

Cook is one of several quasi-disciples of Mike Lindell and other big-name election influencers who have been spreading the hand-count gospel around the country since 2020, when Donald Trump began claiming without evidence that ballot tabulating machines were rigged against him.

The push to hand-count ballots is ramping up, albeit with spotty success, as the 2024 election nears, according to a review by The Guardian and Votebeat. If more localities decide to try hand-counting in the November election, results could be inaccurate, untrustworthy, or delayed, fostering more distrust in elections. In places that opt not to hand count, supporters of the practice could use this choice as a reason to question or refuse to sign off on certification.

Either way, it raises the risk of throwing the 2024 election into chaos.

“It just gives additional grounds for calling into question the results of elections when there are no valid grounds,” said Heather Sawyer, executive director at American Oversight. “There’s no good reason to do it. And there’s lots of room for mischief and problems.”

The push hasn’t gained much ground in the large swing counties where Trump claimed votes were stolen from him. It’s been more effective in small or rural counties that voted heavily for Trump, where conservative activists have lined up at public meetings to repeat the conspiracies of Cook, Lindell, and others. There — in Missouri, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Wisconsin — local officials voted to give hand-counting ballots a try in either their midterm or presidential primary elections.

These attempts have proven what election experts have long understood: Ditching machines and exclusively hand-counting ballots is time-consuming, expensive, and more prone to human error. It’s also unnecessary. Election officials routinely verify that machines are counting votes properly by hand-counting the results on a portion of ballots after each election.

Most recently, in Gillespie County, Texas, errors were discovered in nearly all precincts after the county tried to hand-count its Republican presidential primary election.

Nevertheless, Gillespie County still plans to hand-count its local runoff election in May. In South Dakota, there are efforts to get hand-counting through local initiatives. And in New Hampshire, one town voted to count ballots by hand after a concerted push by local activists.

This seemingly grassroots effort has sometimes been backed by outside funding and promises of financial support, some from Lindell and others from unknown sources, according to public records and statements reviewed by The Guardian and Votebeat.

Before a California county voted to get rid of its tabulation machines, Lindell wrote to a supervisor that if they “have any pushback, including lawsuits against you or your county, I will provide all of the resources necessary (including both financial and legal) for this fight,” according to documents obtained by American Oversight, a watchdog group that has tracked the hand count movement across the country, and shared with The Guardian and Votebeat.

Lindell told The Guardian he has contributed money to efforts in South Dakota and New Hampshire, but he wasn’t sure how much or how exactly the funds were used. He also features hand-count activists on his online video programs and helps them find donations that way. “Any way I can to get the word out,” he said.

Money wouldn’t come from him personally, but from an affiliated fundraising outfit, the Lindell Offense Fund, he said. His personal financial issues, stemming from lawsuits he faces, are well documented: He couldn’t pay his lawyers in defamation cases brought by voting machine companies.

“I don’t have money to stick in there myself. I’m reaching out to the public. … I’m not a grifter. I’d be the worst grifter that ever lived,” he said.

In Arizona, the push to hand-count ballots has mysterious benefactors, with an unknown source offering money for the legal defense of county supervisors who take on the fight to hand-count ballots, defying state law. Most recently, an elected official in rural Mohave County sued the attorney general, an effort to obtain a court ruling saying that hand-counting ballots is legal. The supervisor, Ron Gould, said in an interview he doesn’t “have permission” to disclose who is paying his legal costs — but so far, it isn’t him.

Mike Lindell influences hand-count push

Inside Pollack Cinemas in Tempe, road show attendees munched on popcorn and sipped sodas as Cook told them about a story he heard from a Texas poll worker. The poll worker told him they watched as a ballot counter on a tabulation machine ticked up one by one, but no one was inserting ballots at the time.

Many in the crowd gasped. “Oh my gosh,” one said.

This claim could have been referencing a viral video which showed an electronic pollbook in Dallas County adding voters after polls closed, which county officials have explained was simply a delay in the system.

Like many who promote hand-counting ballots, Cook subscribes to wide-ranging conspiracy theories about voting, and he told the crowd all about them. Their election officials in Maricopa County, he told them without offering proof, had caused problems during the midterm election so they could “pepper in ballots.” Election officials across the country used messy voter rolls to “inject” “phantom” voters, he said, again without evidence. And COVID-19 was born as a way to increase vote-by-mail across the country, he said falsely, just so the 2020 election could be stolen from Donald Trump.

The solutions he offers are familiar talking points among the Republican leaders who promote hand-counting ballots. They would restrict voting access, such as ending all early and mail-in voting, and purging voter rolls.

Cook credits Lindell with influencing his beliefs. He attended Lindell’s infamous “cyber symposium” in 2021, where Lindell said the “seeds were planted” for people to go back to their states to advocate against machines.

With Lindell’s assistance and coordination, the hand-count pushes have become more systematic.

He tried to rally the troops at a summit in Missouri last August, where he detailed “The Plan,” his step-by-step guide for grassroots groups and activists to convince their local elected officials to ditch machines. He advises them to talk about machine vulnerabilities, voter roll issues, internet connections, and other frequent talking points of the far-right election activist movement. Then, “call for the implementation of hand counts” and prepare to respond to objections.

Cause of America, one of several organizations affiliated with Lindell, says it has “over 300,000 volunteers on the ground going county by county to change laws, remove machines, teach hand count voting and more.” Lindell said he hosts a weekly call with activists across the country to talk about the plan.

Lindell held the 2021 cyber symposium in South Dakota, where activists are now working on gathering petition signatures to put the idea of getting rid of voting machines before voters in two dozen counties. Proponents have so far convinced two counties, Fall River and Gregory, to adopt full hand counts.

Some counties have objected to the petitions, saying the change could violate state and federal law.

“If the voters vote for this ordinance, we will have lawsuits,” McPherson County Auditor Lindley Howard told South Dakota News Watch. “If we illegally deny the petition, then the petitioners will file a lawsuit. I feel like counties were left swimming in an ocean without a lifejacket.”

In New Hampshire, a group used many towns’ “warrant articles” process to try to get rid of machines, filing petitions in nearly two dozen towns to call for a vote on machine tabulation. Activists in the state tried a similar push in 2022, but didn’t get much traction.

Lindell and New Hampshire organizers hoped for a landslide of towns moving to hand counts.

“Imagine the impact for the rest of the state.... Imagine the impact on the rest of our country! God willing, this will be our generation’s ‘shot heard around the world,’” a crowdfunding site for the New Hampshire push says. The crowdfunding page notes that Lindell funded a “digital mobile truck” to advertise for the campaign for six days at $20,000.

But so far just one town, Danville, has approved the petition to hand-count ballots in presidential elections. The town’s attorney told the Associated Press he doesn’t believe the change will stand because it may violate state law.

New Hampshire organizers didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Lindell has featured both the South Dakota and New Hampshire efforts on his online show.

‘No upside’ to hand-counting ballots

There’s a side benefit to the hand count fervor for the broader rightwing election movement: It serves to keep local activists engaged in the leadup to the 2024 election, notes Emma Steiner, who has followed the hand count push for Common Cause.

“It’s basically an objective that they can organize around, that they can lobby their local legislators and officials about, and something that keeps them motivated and their eye on the ball so that they will be available in the game for November,” Steiner said.

In Arizona, far-right lawmakers Sonny Borrelli and Wendy Rogers have traveled the state to spread the word about hand counts. The anti-machine sentiment is still running strong in the swing state, which could decide the 2024 election.

Before Borrelli and Rogers’ tour, Cochise County notably attempted to move to a full hand count, despite a warning from the secretary of state at the time that the move would be illegal. An unnamed source paid a $10,000 legal retainer for two Republican supervisors who had voted for the hand count to happen, according to their statements at public meetings.

Those two supervisors, Tom Crosby and Peggy Judd, then later refused to certify the election, which required court intervention. Crosby and Judd were recently charged by the state for their role in delaying certification.

Judd said in an interview that she wanted to hand count ballots only to appease the crowds that had been showing up to board meetings.

“It was just to show them we have good machines, we have a good elections director, we have a good system here, you don’t have to be worried about Cochise county,” she said.

Judd said she didn’t know who paid the $10,000 legal retainer for the related case.

When asked if he paid the Cochise retainer, Lindell said, “I don’t believe so.”

In Cochise and elsewhere, the hand count push has driven out some elections officials, who have found themselves at odds with their county boards over the practice. Cochise’s seasoned elections director, Lisa Marra, left her job after suing the county for harassment. She eventually received a $130,000 settlement.

When Mohave County, a heavily Republican part of the state, was considering a full hand count of ballots cast in 2024 elections, Borrelli told the local supervisors that unnamed hand count supporters had promised him they’d financially support the county if there was any legal pushback.

Attorney General Kris Mayes, a Democrat, sent a letter warning the supervisors they could be prosecuted for hand-counting all ballots, and the supervisors voted not to move forward. That spurred Gould’s lawsuit against Mayes, asking the court to rule on whether hand counting is legal in the state. In the suit, Gould says that he faced “potentially losing his liberty and being jailed as a criminal, if Defendant Mayes is correct, for voting according to his conscience.”

Gould said in an interview that he sued so that the state would “stop threatening him.” He believes hand counting ballots is legal and would improve voter confidence.

Supervisor Buster Johnson voted “no” to stop the switch to hand counting. Borrelli is now challenging Johnson for his seat on the board in the July primary election, which could change the makeup of the board. Borrelli said in a text message that his run for the seat has “nothing to do with elections.”

In a phone interview, Johnson said he voted no on hand counting because, along with the legal reasons, he said, it would be expensive and error-prone, and it attempts to fix a non-existent problem.

“There is no upside to it.”

Borrelli didn’t respond to a question about the identity of the unnamed supporter who had promised to pay legal costs in Mohave County. Judd said that Borrelli has not offered to pay legal costs for her pending criminal case.

Beyond Arizona, places that recently tried hand counting have found out the hard way about its challenges.

Osage County, a small Missouri county outside Jefferson City, hand-counted a local election in April 2023 as a test of the practice, spurred by activists who convinced the county clerk to try it. Lindell and other activists now cite the Osage count as one of their successes.

But, County Clerk Nicci Kammerich wrote in a local newspaper, the process took longer and cost more in the end, even with a group of mostly volunteers who helped hand count.

Kammerich sent the article to The Guardian after an interview request, saying the hand count issue has consumed her office: “I do not have the time to talk. I get calls and email requests on the daily about this hand count and it has been really interfering with my day to day tasks.”

After the hand count, Kammerich heard from election judges who said they wouldn’t work again if they had to hand count.

“After considering all factors of this election and comparing it to other elections that are similar, I fear that if we were to continue hand counting it would cost us more in time, money, losing volunteers, and accuracy of votes,” Kammerich wrote, adding that her office intends to go back to tabulation machines for future elections.

How the U.S. counts votes

Most of the U.S. votes on paper ballots, which then are fed into machines that tabulate the results. Some places use touch screens, where people vote by selecting options on a screen and then cast printed receipts of their votes into machines. Machine-tabulated results are then verified with a hand count of a small percentage of ballots, with only tight races receiving a full hand recount. Some jurisdictions, typically very small, still hand count paper ballots, though these instances are rare.

The widespread use of machines is relatively recent: the Help America Vote Act, passed in 2002, allowed many smaller areas to afford tabulation machines, said Charles Stewart III, a political science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Some of the proponents of hand counting may remember when their local elections were counted by hand.

Proponents of the practice often point to other countries, like France, where hand-counting paper ballots is the norm. But local ballots in the U.S. are often much longer and more complex than those in European countries: Americans vote on far more offices, and elections are frequently consolidated, so a voter will weigh in on federal, state, and local elected officials and ballot questions at the same time. Some of these countries don’t use mail-in voting, a more common voting method in the U.S., and they are smaller than the U.S.

“A voter in San Francisco in the presidential election is going to vote on more things in that one election than a citizen of Great Britain will vote on in a lifetime,” Stewart said.

Moving to hand counts brings not only financial and accuracy questions, but also logistical ones: it takes far more people and space than machine counting. In some counties that discussed the idea of hand counts, finding a place to house a big operation to count ballots presented obstacles.

Cook shrugs off these points. If we found a way to do it in years past, he said, we can do it now.

Lindell’s response to the pushback from elections officials: “They’re all wrong. They’re all wrong. … These election officials, they don’t know what they’re talking about. They absolutely don’t. They’re just putting it out there and you media people put it out there as gospel. It’s not true.”

Proponents of hand counting say it’s one way to restore faith in elections, especially among those who don’t trust the results. But whenever people claim an election reform will restore confidence in the process, the evidence typically shows it doesn’t, Stewart, of MIT, said.

“I don’t see any evidence that something like this would be the silver bullet that would restore confidence among the mass public,” Stewart said.

Correction: This story originally misstated who warned Cochise County officials in 2022 that their hand count plan would be illegal. It was the Arizona secretary of state, not the attorney general.

Votebeat reporter Natalia Contreras contributed to this report.

Rachel Leingang is a democracy reporter at The Guardian. Contact Rachel at rachel.leingang@theguardian.com. Jen Fifield is a reporter for Votebeat based in Arizona. Contact Jen at jfifield@votebeat.org.

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