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After botching election results, Arizona county wants to try hand-counting ballots

Pinal County’s inaccurate counts in 2022 were caused by human error. Counting ballots by hand won’t prevent that again.

Woman in blue sweater stands behind podium with trail of index cards.
Mary Rodriguez told Pinal County’s Board of Supervisors at a May meeting that she served as a political observer in the county’s 2022 election and documented on index cards how complicated the elections process has become. (Jen Fifield/Votebeat)

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Update, May 26: Pinal County officials have clarified that the planned trial hand count of ballots will look at unused ballots from 2022, not the results of the midterm election, as a county supervisor originally told Votebeat.

After human error in Pinal County’s midterm election caused officials to initially fail to count hundreds of ballots, the county’s supervisors now want to try counting ballots by hand.

The county’s midterm mistakes weren’t caused by ballot tabulation machines, but rather because workers programmed machines incorrectly and overlooked machine errors as votes went uncounted. A Votebeat investigation published earlier this month found the county lacked procedures to properly track ballots cast at voting locations on Election Day and election officials didn’t adhere to safeguards to ensure each ballot was counted.

Still, three supervisors – all Republicans representing the GOP-leaning fast-growing suburban county just southeast of Phoenix – told Votebeat Wednesday they want to see if it would be feasible to hand-count ballots instead of using machines. That’s despite the fact that hand-counting ballots has repeatedly been proven to be far less accurate and efficient than counting ballots by machine, according to numerous studies and election experts across the country. 

The supervisors, like many across the state and county, have been hammered by months of requests from residents who want the county to hand-count ballots because of false claims about vote switching that have swirled since the 2020 election.

Supervisors Chairman Jeff Serdy told Votebeat on Wednesday that the county is planning to do a trial hand-count using a sampling of ballots cast by voters in 2022 “to see how it would go.” Supervisor Mike Goodman told Votebeat he supports the plan.

Separately, Supervisor Kevin Cavanaugh during the supervisors’ meeting on Wednesday asked that the supervisors discuss counting all 2024 ballots by hand — which is currently illegal in Arizona. State law requires paper ballots to be scanned and counted by tabulation machines.

Pinal County’s elections have been plagued with problems that hand-counting ballots will not solve. In the primary election, the county ran out of ballots or ran short at nearly one-fourth of voting locations on Election Day, causing massive delays for voters across the county.

A statewide recount ultimately revealed the errors in the November election, showing that election officials initially failed to count 442 ballots and, separately, failed to count some votes on dozens more. If not for the recount, those votes would have gone uncounted.

The county is taking steps to try to prevent future problems, Serdy said Wednesday, including adding more elections staff, creating additional checks and balances, and building a new elections center that will streamline processes. Elections Director Geraldine Roll has told the board that she is working on new processes to better ensure accurate results, such as creating new ballot tracking forms.

The sample hand-count of 2022 ballots is being planned alongside those fixes. Serdy said that it would make Pinal an example for the state, as state lawmakers attempt to pass laws to eliminate voting machines. He said the trial will be open to the public and press to observe.

Other attempts to hand-count ballots across the country since 2020 have taken weeks or months, have required anywhere from dozens to hundreds of workers, and have shown just how difficult it is to get accurate results. The state Senate-ordered partisan review of Maricopa County’s 2.1 million 2020 election ballots, for example, took Cyber Ninjas and its contractors more than three months, millions of dollars, and hundreds of volunteers, and ballots had to be recounted numerous times to try to get accurate results. In Nevada last year, workers counting by hand in Nye County took longer than expected, at a pace of about 2,000 ballots a day.

More than 145,000 ballots were cast in Pinal County’s midterm election.

Cavanaugh, who wants to discuss fully hand-counting all 2024 ballots, told Votebeat after the meeting that, despite county officials saying human error caused the mistakes, he wants to have a discussion about hand-counting because he believes machines may have been part of the problem. County officials have not said this, though, explaining that workers were responsible for the incorrect machine settings and unheeded error messages on tabulators that caused the inaccuracies, along with a two-page ballot that made counting difficult.

“If we are having [issues with the machines], we should have a discussion about the merits of doing a manual count, or if there are machines that count better than the ones we’ve got,” Cavanaugh said.

Told that counting ballots by hand has proven to be less accurate than machine counting, Cavanaugh said “I’m not an elections expert.” He said he believes that it’s a worthy discussion because he knows workers had problems when running the ballots through the machines.

Cochise County was blocked in November from performing a full hand-count of ballots during its post-election audit, after a judge ruled that Arizona law prohibits it.

But interest in hand-counting continues. On Monday, state Sen. Sonny Borrelli falsely claimed that a non-binding resolution the Legislature passed this year prohibits counties from using their tabulation machines in future elections. That’s after Attorney General Kris Mayes issued an opinion May 18 making clear that a full hand-count of ballots is illegal.

At the Pinal County supervisors meeting Wednesday, three residents told supervisors during public comment that they believe the county should hand-count ballots, while talking about the county’s election problems.

“My suggestion is start looking at hand counts,” said Boots Hawks. “This isn’t something that we can go on ignoring, because it is festering.”

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

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