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In a rare move, three South Dakota counties will vote on hand-counting ballots

Voters in at least three rural South Dakota counties will decide Tuesday whether to return to hand-counting ballots. These are the latest communities across the country to consider abandoning machine tabulations based on baseless conspiracy theories stemming from the 2020 presidential election.

The three counties, each with fewer than 6,000 residents, would be among the first in the U.S. to require old-fashioned manual counts, which were long ago replaced by vote tabulations in most of the country.

A number of other states and local governments have considered banning machine counting since the 2020 election, but most of these efforts have focused on the cost, the time it takes to count manually, and the difficulty of hiring more staff to to do this.

Experts say manual vote counting is less accurate than machine counting.

Supporters of the South Dakota move are undeterred by such concerns.

“We believe that a decentralized approach to elections is much more secure and transparent, and that citizens should have control over their elections,” said Jessica Pollema, president of SD Canvassing, a citizens’ group that supports the change.

As elsewhere, the push for hand counting in South Dakota has its roots in false claims made by former President Donald Trump and his allies after the 2020 presidential election, claiming widespread voter fraud and spreading conspiracy theories that voting machines were being manipulated to sway the election. to steal. There is no evidence to support such claims, but they are embedded in many places that voted heavily for Trump.

South Dakota’s citizen initiatives to ban tabulating machines will appear during Tuesday’s primaries in Gregory, Haakon and Tripp counties. Similar petition efforts for votes on future measures are underway in more than 40 other counties in the conservative state, Pollema said. At least four provinces have rejected attempts to force hand counting.

Previously, the Fall River County Commission voted in February to hand count ballots for the June election, and Tripp County counted ballots by hand for the 2022 general election.

If the measure passes Tuesday, Gregory County Auditor Julie Bartling said the county will have to increase the number of districts to reduce the burden of hand counting. That will force the country to buy more voting aids for disabled voters. The county will also face the difficult task of hiring more election staff.

Bartling, who organizes elections in the province, opposes the initiative and said she has “complete confidence in the computerized tabulations.”

Todd and Tripp County Auditor Barb DeSersa said they also oppose efforts to require the manual counting of all ballots because the process is not as accurate. She said election workers were exhausted by the 2022 count.

“I know those who did it last time didn’t want anything to do with it this time, so I think if they do it once or twice, they’ll get tired of it and it’ll be harder to do it. find people to volunteer for that,” DeSersa said.

DeSersa’s office estimated it would cost $17,000 to $25,000 to count Tripp County elections by hand, compared to about $19,000 to $21,000 using tabulation. Haakon County Auditor Stacy Pinney said she initially estimated that counting by hand would cost between $750 and $4,500, but “overall election costs are difficult to determine at this time.”

According to a Haakon County prosecutor’s analysis, two election workers using a tabulator would take three to four hours to count all the ballots. It would take 15 to 20 election workers between five and 15 hours to do a hand count, depending on the number of contested races.

According to a national report, the three provinces together have 7,725 active registered voters.

Republican state Rep. Rocky Blare, who lives in Tripp County, said he will vote against the measure.

“They can’t prove to me that there were any issues that I think affected our elections in South Dakota,” Blare said.

Secretary of State Monae Johnson, a Republican, expressed confidence in tabulating machines, noting that they have been used for years. In a statement, she pointed to “safeguards built in throughout the process and the post-election audit of the machines after the primaries and general elections to ensure they are working properly.”

The June election will be the first with a post-election audit, a process included in a 2023 state law. It involves hand counting all votes in two races from 5% of precincts in each county to ensure that the machine table is accurate. Johnson’s office said there was no evidence of widespread problems in 2020 or 2022. One person voted twice, she said, and was caught.

After repeated attacks on machine counting of ballots in the 2020 presidential election, Dominion Voting Systems reached a $787 million settlement last year in a defamation lawsuit against Fox News over false claims the network repeatedly aired. The judge in that case ruled that it was “CRYSTAL clear” that none of the claims about Dominion’s machines were true, and testimony showed that many Fox hosts quietly doubted the claims their network broadcast.

Since 2020, only a few provinces have made the switch to manual counting. In California, officials in Shasta County voted to abolish their ballots, but state lawmakers later limited hand counting to limited circumstances. Officials in Arizona’s Mohave County rejected a proposal to distribute the ballots in 2023, citing the $1.1 million cost.

David Levine, a former local elections official in Idaho who is now a senior fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, said research has shown that manually counting large numbers of ballots is more expensive, less accurate and more time-consuming than machine tabulation.

“If you listen to conspiracy theorists and election skeptics across the US, one of the reasons the 2020 election was illegitimate is because of an algorithm. So if you take computers out of the voting process, you will have more secure elections,” Levine said. “The only problem: it’s not true.”

While some areas count ballots by hand, especially in the Northeast, this is typically done in places with a small number of registered voters. Hand counts are common during post-election testing to ensure machines are counting ballots correctly, but only a small portion of ballots are checked manually.

Election experts say it’s unrealistic to think that workers in large jurisdictions, with tens or hundreds of thousands of voters, could count all their ballots by hand and report the results quickly, especially because ballots often include multiple races.

“The problem is that humans aren’t very good at big, tedious, repetitive tasks like counting ballots, and computers are,” Levine said. “Those who believe otherwise are either unaware of this reality or choose to ignore it.”

Dura reported from Bismarck, North Dakota. Associated Press writer Christina A. Cassidy in Atlanta contributed to this story.

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