Three counties in South Dakota to vote on manual ballot counting, a rare occurrence

At least three rural counties in South Dakota will be voting on Tuesday to decide whether to switch back to manual ballot counting. This move is driven by unfounded conspiracy theories related to the 2020 presidential election, which have led some communities across the country to question the reliability of machine tabulators.

Three counties, each with populations of fewer than 6,000 residents, are set to become pioneers in the United States by implementing traditional hand counts. These manual counts, which were largely replaced by ballot tabulators in most parts of the country, will be mandatory.

Several states and local governments have contemplated prohibiting machine counting since the 2020 election. However, many of these endeavors have faced setbacks due to concerns regarding expenses, the time-consuming nature of manual counting, and the challenges of recruiting additional personnel for the task.

Counting the votes by hand is considered to be less accurate than machine tabulation, according to experts.

Despite such concerns, supporters of the South Dakota effort remain undeterred.

According to Jessica Pollema, president of SD Canvassing, a citizen group advocating for the change, the belief is that a decentralized approach to elections offers enhanced security and transparency. Additionally, Pollema emphasizes that citizens should have control and supervision over their own elections.

The South Dakota push for hand counting originated from false claims propagated by former President Donald Trump and his allies following the 2020 presidential election. They falsely alleged widespread voter fraud and propagated conspiracy theories suggesting that voting machines were manipulated to sway the election results. Despite the lack of evidence supporting these claims, they have gained traction, particularly in areas with strong support for Trump.

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The citizens of South Dakota are taking matters into their own hands by introducing initiatives to ban tabulating machines. This Tuesday, the primary ballot in Gregory, Haakon, and Tripp counties will feature these initiatives. This movement is gaining momentum, as over 40 other counties in the conservative state are also working on similar petition efforts for future measure votes. However, it’s worth noting that not all counties are on board with this idea, as at least four counties have already rejected attempts to enforce hand counting.

In February, the Fall River County Commission made the decision to manually count the ballots for the June election. Similarly, in 2022, Tripp County also opted to count its general election ballots by hand.

If the measure is passed on Tuesday, Julie Bartling, the Auditor of Gregory County, stated that the county will need to expand the number of precincts in order to alleviate the burden of manually counting the votes. This, in turn, will require the county to purchase additional assisted voting devices to accommodate disabled voters. Moreover, the county will be faced with the challenging responsibility of recruiting more election workers.

According to Bartling, the individual responsible for overseeing elections in the county, she disagrees with the initiative and expresses complete confidence in the automated tabulators.

According to Todd and Tripp County Auditor Barb DeSersa, she is against the idea of mandating hand counting of all ballots due to concerns about accuracy. She further explained that the hand count conducted in 2022 resulted in exhaustion among election workers.

DeSersa expressed his belief that those who have previously participated in the task may not be willing to do so again. He anticipates that after a couple of times, people will grow weary of it, making it more challenging to find volunteers for the job.

DeSersa’s office has provided an estimate that the cost of hand-counting elections in Tripp County would range from $17,000 to $25,000, whereas using tabulators would cost approximately $19,000 to $21,000. Haakon County Auditor Stacy Pinney has also made an initial estimate that hand counting would cost between $750 and $4,500. However, determining the overall cost of an election at this point is challenging.

According to an analysis conducted by a state attorney for Haakon County, the task of counting all the ballots can be completed by two election workers using a tabulator in approximately three to four hours. However, if a hand count is chosen, it would require a team of 15 to 20 election workers and could take anywhere between five and 15 hours, depending on the number of contested races.

According to a statewide report, the three counties have a total of 7,725 active registered voters.

Republican state Representative Rocky Blare, who resides in Tripp County, expressed his intention to oppose the proposed measure.

Blare confidently stated that there is no concrete evidence to suggest that any problems have impacted the election in South Dakota.

Secretary of State Monae Johnson, a Republican, has expressed confidence in tabulating machines, emphasizing their long-standing use in the electoral process. In a statement, she highlighted the numerous safeguards implemented throughout the process, as well as the post-election audit conducted on the machines following both the primary and general elections to ensure their proper functionality.

The upcoming June election marks a significant milestone with the implementation of a post-election audit, as mandated by a state law passed in 2023. This new process entails a thorough hand counting of all the votes in two selected races from 5% of precincts across every county. The purpose of this audit is to verify the accuracy of the machine tabulation. While discussing the matter, Johnson’s office emphasized that there was no indication of widespread issues during the previous elections in both 2020 and 2022. They did note, however, that there was one isolated incident where an individual attempted to vote twice, but their actions were promptly detected and addressed.

In the aftermath of multiple assaults on the use of machine-counting of ballots during the 2020 presidential election, Dominion Voting Systems resolved a defamation lawsuit against Fox News with a settlement amounting to $787 million. The network had been consistently airing false claims about Dominion’s machines, but the judge presiding over the case unequivocally declared that none of these allegations held any truth. Testimony during the trial also revealed that several Fox hosts privately harbored doubts about the veracity of the claims being aired on their network.

Only a handful of counties have transitioned to hand counting since 2020. Shasta County officials in California made the decision to eliminate their ballot tabulators, but state lawmakers later imposed limitations on when hand counts could be conducted. In 2023, Mohave County officials in Arizona declined a proposal to hand count ballots due to the high cost of $1.1 million.

According to David Levine, a former local election official in Idaho who is now a senior fellow with the Alliance for Securing Democracy, studies have demonstrated that manually counting a large volume of ballots is both more expensive and less precise compared to using machine tabulators. Additionally, the process of hand counting ballots also consumes more time.

According to Levine, conspiracy theorists and election skeptics in the U.S. claim that the 2020 election was illegitimate due to an algorithm. They argue that removing computers from the voting process would make elections more secure. However, Levine argues that this claim is not true.

In certain regions, ballots are manually counted, particularly in the Northeast, where the number of registered voters is relatively small. Hand counts are frequently conducted during post-election examinations to ensure the accuracy of the ballot-counting machines. However, only a small fraction of the ballots undergo manual verification.

Election experts argue that expecting workers in large jurisdictions, with tens or hundreds of thousands of voters, to manually count all the ballots and promptly report the results is impractical. This is particularly challenging as ballots often consist of multiple races.

“People struggle with large, monotonous tasks like counting ballots, whereas computers excel at them,” Levine emphasized. “Those who think otherwise are either unaware of this fact or deliberately turning a blind eye to it.”

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