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Mohave County supervisors to decide on hand-counting ballots in 2024

Northern Arizona county officials may be breaking state law if they choose not to use machines to count all ballots cast in the presidential election.

A closeup of a man's hands filled with a stack of green envelopes, passing them to another man's hand.
Election workers sort mail ballots in Maricopa County in 2022. Mohave County, in northern Arizona, is considering hand-counting all ballots cast in the 2024 election instead of using machines. (Eric Thayer for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

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Mohave County supervisors will vote Monday on whether to tally by hand all ballots cast in the county’s 2024 elections, including the November presidential election.

The supervisors, all Republicans, had previously considered hand-counting ballots but voted 3-2 against the idea in August after the county’s elections director conducted a trial and found it would cost around $1.1 million. The county is facing an $18 million budget deficit, and county supervisors cited that as a reason for rejecting the hand-count proposal.

One of the supervisors who voted no in August, Chairman Travis Lingenfelter, has now put the proposal back on the agenda for Monday’s supervisors meeting. If he switches his vote and no one else does, the hand count would move forward. He declined on Friday to speak with Votebeat until after Monday’s meeting.

The northern Arizona county expects about 100,000 voters in the 2024 general election. The elections director previously estimated it would take 657 days to complete a hand count for that election. Hand-counting ballots is known to be inaccurate, inefficient, and costly compared to using machines.

State Attorney General Kris Mayes issued an opinion in May stating that counting the ballots by hand rather than using machines would be illegal, and Secretary of State Adrian Fontes wrote Mohave supervisors a letter in June telling them the same thing. Both are Democrats. State law does not explicitly say all ballots must be counted by machines, but Fontes and others say other sections of law imply it.

The agenda item for Monday’s board meeting shows Mohave supervisors received a letter on Thursday from a lawyer, Bryan Blehm, telling them that it is legal and “well within Mohave County’s rights,” and promising that if supervisors are sued for doing so, he will represent the county “at no cost.”

“Any litigation will be 100% private pay,” Blehm wrote, though he didn’t disclose who would be paying him. Blehm represented the Cochise County supervisors in their attempted plan to hand-count all ballots in the November midterm as part of their audit, and he is the former attorney for Cyber Ninjas during the hand count of Maricopa County’s 2020 ballots.

Two of the Cochise County supervisors are now under criminal investigation by the Attorney General’s Office in the wake of the plan to hand count and a decision not to certify the midterm results on time.

The supervisors agenda shows the chairwoman of the Mohave County Republican Central Committee wrote a Nov. 15 letter to the supervisors saying the party could provide more than 300 volunteers for the counting.

Mohave County Supervisor Buster Johnson, who voted no in August, said in an interview Friday morning that he worries not just about the cost and legality of the move, but also the potential inaccuracy of the county’s results. Johnson also said volunteers won’t be reliable for this work.

Counties, he said, started using machines for a reason.

“Are we going to go back to the horse and buggy?” Johnson said.

The reconsideration comes after supervisors across the state have for months received pressure from Republican state Sens. Sonny Borrelli and Wendy Rogers to eliminate voting machines. The senators toured the state this summer telling the supervisors they believe the move would be legal. Nevertheless, no county has yet committed to do it.

In August, Deputy County Attorney Ryan Esplin told supervisors that his office “has concerns about the legality” of counting ballots by hand instead of using machines.

The Arizona Court of Appeals recently affirmed a lower court’s decision that hand-counting all ballots as part of the state’s prescribed post-election audit is illegal. Fontes told Votebeat in a recent interview he believes that ruling applies to the initial count of ballots as well.

Legality aside, Mohave County Elections Director Allen Tempert told the supervisors in August that the hand count would be impractical. He conducted a trial hand count of ballots and found that he would need to hire 250 people to count the general election by hand, and the counting would still stretch far past the deadlines for certifying the county’s election results.

Jen Fifield is a reporter for Votebeat based in Arizona. Contact Jen at jfifield@votebeat.org.

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