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Can a state count all its votes by hand? A North Dakota proposal aims to be the first to try

Backers are far from gathering enough signatures, but if the measure makes the June 2024 ballot and voters pass it, North Dakota would have to replace ballot scanners with hundreds of workers

A ballot drop box sits outside the city government center, Thursday, October 5, 2023, in Bridgeport, Conn.
A ballot drop box sits outside the city government center, Thursday, October 5, 2023, in Bridgeport, Conn.Julie Jacobson (AP)

All election ballots would be counted by hand under a proposal that could go to North Dakota voters, potentially achieving a goal of activists across the country who distrust modern vote counting but dismaying election officials who say the change would needlessly delay vote tallies and lead to more errors.

Backers of the proposed ballot measure are far from gathering enough signatures, but if the plan makes the June 2024 ballot and voters pass it, North Dakota would have to replace ballot scanners with hundreds of workers across the state who would carefully count and recount ballots.

It’s a change other Republican-led states have attempted unsuccessfully in the years since former president Donald Trump began criticizing the nation’s vote-counting system, falsely claiming it was rigged against him.

“We’ve always done hand counting before we got these machines,” said Lydia Gessele, a farmer who is leading the effort to get the measure on the ballot. “They can find the people to do the job, because there are people that are willing to come in and do the hand counting.”

Gessele said supporters were motivated by issues they claim occurred in 2022, including inaccurate ballot scanners and an electrical outage that prevented people in Bismarck from voting.

Former Secretary of State Al Jaeger, a Republican who oversaw North Dakota’s elections for 30 years through 2022, rejected Gessele’s claims, saying, “There was nothing that took place that would have changed the outcome of a vote. Nothing at all.”

The North Dakota effort is aligned with a movement among Trump allies who since 2020 have railed against voting machines. Without evidence, they cast the machines as suspicious and fraudulent. In some cases, they even breached voting systems’ software in their efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election results.

Earlier this year, Fox News reached a settlement with Dominion Voting Systems to pay $787.5 million to settle a defamation lawsuit brought over statements broadcast by the network that Dominion machines were rigged against Trump.

The North Dakota ballot measure proposes all voting “shall be done by paper ballots and counted by hand starting on the day of the election and continuing uninterrupted until hand counting is completed.”

The move would make North Dakota the first state to mandate hand counts, shifting from the paper ballots and scanners used for most elections, according to Voting Rights Lab, a nonpartisan organization that tracks states’ voting legislation.

The measure doesn’t specify a process or funding for hand counts. The state pays for election equipment, but North Dakota’s 53 counties are each responsible for poll workers and polling locations.

North Dakota Republican Secretary of State Michael Howe said he opposes the proposed measure because hand counts are less standardized than using scanners. He likened it to having a computer rather than a human umpire a baseball game.

“When you hand-count, you bring in the human element of umpiring. You could have a wide strike zone, you could have a narrow strike zone,” Howe said. “What you get with a machine is one consistent strike zone every single time.”

Officials elsewhere in the country have struggled to implement hand-counting requirements. In Nye County, Nevada, officials in 2022 proceeded with a hand count, but only after polls closed and along with a machine count. In California’s Shasta County, a state law prevented officials from forcing a hand count for a Nov. 7 election.

Last year, 317 ballots took more than seven hours to count by hand in Nevada’s least populated county.

Legislators in at least eight states also proposed prohibitions, in some way, on ballot tabulators.

In April, Arizona Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs vetoed a bill that effectively would have mandated hand counts “by prohibiting the use of any known type of electronic tabulator.” Arizona’s Republican-controlled Legislature passed a similar resolution, but it was deemed non-binding.

Election officials in some of North Dakota’s largest counties questioned the proposal.

Hand counting “seems to be extremely error-prone,” said Craig Steingaard, the election administrator for Cass County, the state’s largest county.

“It would definitely be more difficult for us to administer these elections correctly and then efficiently, too,” he said.

Grand Forks County Finance and Tax Director Debbie Nelson said hand counts must be done “repeatedly to get the correct number. You can’t do it once, and it takes you a very long time to do what the computer can do instantly.”

The measure would allow any U.S. citizen to verify or audit North Dakota elections. The initiative also would mandate that “all voting will be completed only on Election Day,” with allowance for absentee ballots mailed only for voters “who request one for a specific election in writing within a reasonable time period prior to Election Day.” Mail-in ballots would be “otherwise prohibited.”

Nearly 44% of voters participated by early voting or by mail in North Dakota’s November 2022 election.

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