The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How Trump allies are pushing to hand-count ballots around the U.S.

Maricopa County, Ariz., ballots cast in the 2020 general election are examined and recounted by contractors working for Cyber Ninjas at Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix on May 6, 2021. Republican lawmakers in at least six states have introduced legislation that would require all ballots to be counted by hand instead of electronic tabulators, and similar proposals are being floated in some county and local governments. (Matt York/Pool/AP)

Some of the key architects and amplifiers of the false claim that voting machines were rigged to steal the 2020 election from Donald Trump traveled to the Nevada desert last month with a new pitch.

Speaking at a commissioners meeting in deeply conservative, mostly rural Nye County, they argued the county should ditch all its voting machines.

“The electronic voting machines are so vulnerable and so uncertifiable, I don’t see how we can trust them,” Jim Marchant, a Trump-supporting Nevada secretary of state candidate, told Nye County commissioners.

Instead, they insisted, the county should adopt an old-fashioned and largely obsolete method: tallying the results by hand.

Also presenting to the commission were retired Army Col. Phil Waldron and businessman Russell J. Ramsland Jr., who had worked with Trump’s legal team to raise doubts about the machines in 2020. Now they’re part of a network of Trump allies traveling the country to press for hand-counted paper ballots. The message is connecting: In recent weeks, officials have discussed the idea in public meetings in Colorado, Louisiana, Kansas and New Hampshire, and bills to require hand-counting have been proposed in at least six states.

None of the statewide bills have passed, nor have the proposals gotten traction in large jurisdictions. But there has been increasing pressure placed on Republicans to endorse the idea, and a number of smaller towns and counties are now seriously considering it.

Top backers of Trump’s election fraud claims, meanwhile, are investing heavily in the effort to promote hand-counting — and using the pitch to raise money from energized supporters.

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Experts say hand-counting ballots is so impractical that, if adopted, election results would be thrown into unimaginable chaos, inviting mass human error and delaying results — and potentially giving bad actors more time to slow or even block certification. Time and again, post-election audits have confirmed that machine counts are extremely accurate, and experts have said that there is no proof machines were hacked in 2020.

“It’s a recipe for some chaos,” said Pam Smith, president of Verified Voting, a nonprofit that promotes secure election practices such as post-election audits. “And I do think that’s potentially very damaging to public trust in the process.”

But the proposal is a nostalgic throwback that holds appeal for many Trump supporters convinced that his loss can be blamed on complicated computers controlled by shadowy forces.

What began as a rhetorical talking point on the fringe right is now an article of faith for some in the Republican grass roots, and a tool to stoke outrage and boost fundraising. The continued attacks on the vulnerability of machines have also helped harden beliefs on the right that the 2020 election was illegitimate.

In Nye County, commissioner Debra Strickland said she proposed the idea after listening to a presentation at a local Republican committee meeting. “The people have been concerned for some time about whether or not our votes are being processed,” she said. On March 15, Strickland and her fellow commissioners in Nye County, population 45,000, voted 5 to 0 to urge their county clerk to adopt hand-counting.

Around the country, only a handful of jurisdictions still count ballots by hand, mostly counties and towns with very small populations concentrated in New England and Wisconsin, according to data provided by Verified Voting. Together, voters living in these communities represent just 0.2 percent of registered voters nationwide.

The vast majority of Americans now vote with hand-marked paper ballots or on touch-screen machines that print one — a security feature that most Republicans and Democrats support and that allows ballots to be hand-counted in post-election audits or in the event of alleged discrepancies or very close races. Current proposals to nix machines call for the elimination of all touch-screen devices and computer tabulators that scan and tally ballots.

Though supporters often claim their goal is to restore the techniques they remember from their youth, in fact, early iterations of voting machines that eliminated the need for hand-counted paper ballots were introduced in the late 19th century and were in widespread use in most American cities by the 1920s, said Doug Jones, a professor at the University of Iowa who specializes in the history of voting technology. Mechanical devices, like pull-lever machines that tallied votes as they were cast, were originally introduced to help eliminate both errors and incidents of fraud that cropped up when partisans controlled counting at the precinct level. Computer-assisted tabulation emerged in the 1960s, he said.

Among election officials and experts, the impracticality of counting ballots by hand is clear. In all but the smallest counties and towns, hand-counting would take days, if not weeks. Machines can complete a similar count in a fraction of the time. Hand-counting would add significant personnel costs and would almost certainly increase the error rate in election results, experts say. And such policies might not comply with federal election law if they do not include carve-outs to accommodate voters with disabilities or those casting overseas and military ballots.

Already, states and counties typically conduct pre-election accuracy tests. Many places also conduct post-election audits of sample batches of ballots, counting them by hand and comparing those results to the machine tally. In California, the law requires larger jurisdictions set aside multiple days to hand-count roughly 1 percent of ballots.

The results of such reviews in 2020 showed machines performed accurately. In Arizona, the GOP-led state Senate commissioned a hand recount in the state’s largest county. Hundreds of workers spent more than two months counting around 2 million ballots, and the results were nearly identical to the machine count from 2020. A report released by independent experts last month also found no evidence the county’s tabulators had been connected to the Internet, as long alleged by Trump allies.

In Colorado, the handful of discrepancies found in seven post-election audits conducted since 2017 were all human error — not a machine mistake, according to the secretary of state.

“The extreme right’s call for a hand count across the nation is political theater,” Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold (D) said in an interview. “It does not increase security. It actually decreases security. What will come of it in the big jurisdictions is a big slowdown in being able to certify elections, less-reliable results and opportunities for extremists to spread misinformation and mistrust.”

But Trump’s allies have worked to stoke suspicions about voting machines since even before the 2020 election, as previously reported by The Washington Post. “There is no totally secure electronic voting system, there just isn’t,” Ramsland said on a conservative podcast in December 2019. “What we really need is paper ballots.”

After Trump’s loss, they have examined machines and compiled reports concluding they are vulnerable to mass hacking, in an effort to prove President Biden’s victory was illegitimate. Although experts have deemed their conclusions bogus or misleading, they have seeped into the mind-set of the GOP grass roots.

Some of Ramsland’s most outlandish claims — that American votes were counted overseas, for example, and that U.S. voting machines were somehow linked to Venezuela — soon went mainstream, supercharged by pro-Trump lawyers Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell and by figures in right-wing media. Waldron told legislators in key battleground states in the weeks after the election that machines were so easy to hack that, as he told Arizona lawmakers in Phoenix on Nov. 30, 2020, “your vote is not as secure as your Venmo account.”

The Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol and Biden’s inauguration did not dissuade Ramsland, Waldron and an extended network of like-minded activists who continue to press Trump’s claims that the election was stolen.

In April 2021, My Pillow chief executive and close Trump ally Mike Lindell declared war on voting machines, announcing that he had “100 percent proof” that China had attacked the United States by interfering with machines. “Obviously,” he said in his film “Absolute Interference,” “you can never have machines ever again.”

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By late summer, Lindell’s associate Douglas Frank was arguing that Americans should “Vote Amish” — a shorthand for using no electronics in voting but only paper poll books and ballots counted by hand. Lindell, meanwhile, was pushing the idea that voting machines should be melted down and made into prison bars. (In a video-recorded interview posted on Lindell’s website, Trump declared that a “very good idea” and “very interesting.”)

In an interview, Lindell — who estimated that he has spent $35 million on his election efforts so far — claimed that hand-counting would prove to be “better than the machines, even faster and certainly more accurate.” He said that he aims to eliminate the use of machines in U.S. elections altogether in time for this year’s midterms, including by filing lawsuits against states as soon as this week.

He said the suits will cite a report based on a hard drive copied from a Dominion voting machine in Mesa County, Colo., without the knowledge or permission of state officials — an incident that led to criminal charges against the county clerk. The report — the last in a series of three based on the Mesa data — purports to have uncovered evidence that votes were flipped by the machines. Lindell published it on his website under the headline “Bombshell proof of election machine manipulation.”

A spokesperson for Griswold, the Colorado secretary of state, called the Mesa reports “misleading” and said they “serve to further the spread of election disinformation.” Independent data security expert Harri Hursti said that the reports were full of errors and did not show that votes were changed. He stressed there is no evidence that the reports were based on an authentic copy of the Mesa County hard drive.

The push to eliminate machines has gotten a boost from a new Lindell-funded organization, Cause of America, which Lindell described as an “information hub” to help grass-roots activists around the country investigate the 2020 election and advocate to jettison machines. The anti-machine movement has also been funded in part and popularized by former Overstock chief executive Patrick Byrne, a central figure in the push to overturn the 2020 election.

“I’m just trying to feed the movement,” Byrne said in an interview. “We’re like a gardener. We’re just trying to nurture and create a fecund environment for the right ideas to fix this.”

Byrne’s nonprofit America Project paid $4,500 to rent space at a casino in Reno, Nev., in early December for the first in a series of “election integrity” conferences organized by Marchant, according to campaign finance disclosures filed by Marchant’s political action committee.

Marchant did not respond to a request for comment. Nor did Waldron, who has spoken at several of those conferences. Ramsland defended his work and argued that machines are indeed vulnerable to hacking.

“It’s not just the 2020 election that has been manipulated,” he said. “Most qualified experts from both sides of the aisle now acknowledge the voting machines are wide open to hacking, have been purposefully configured to make it easy, and don’t come close to being certifiable for use in an election.”

In February, in an appearance on “War Room,” the podcast hosted by former Trump political strategist Stephen K. Bannon, Lindell described the “sales pitch” activists were making to local officials around the country, urging them to get rid of machines. “We have probably 30 counties on board now, and it’s just going to keep growing and growing,” Lindell said.

Bannon himself, a powerful influencer on the right, has also jumped aboard. “I’m a paper ballot guy,” he said last month to hundreds of people at an election integrity conference organized by Marchant’s PAC.

“All the machines should go,” Bannon added.

By late 2021, the notion of doing away with all voting machines had migrated from fantastical musings on far-right media into black-and-white agenda items.

Proposals around the country have ranged from small citizen presentations at county board meetings to sweeping statewide legislation that in some cases would require all ballots to be hand-counted in a single day — demands most experts say would be impossible in any but the smallest places.

Lawmakers in at least six states have proposed legislation that would require hand-counting — including in Arizona, where the prospect of a hand count in enormous Maricopa County, home to 4.5 million people, has given the measure little chance of passage.

When a panel responsible for choosing Louisiana’s new voting system met in December, Waldron gave a presentation on hand-counting ballots. Members of the Louisiana panel voiced concern about the logistics of Waldron’s proposal, but hand-counting remains an option under consideration, according to a presentation at a meeting of the panel in February.

The new push for hand-counting has emerged primarily in heavily Republican communities where election deniers are more prevalent among voters and public officials. And they have been spurred by the leading national advocates, who claim they have spoken to officials in dozens of jurisdictions in multiple states.

In Rio Blanco County, Colo., where commissioners considered moving to hand-counting on March 15, Trump won 83 percent of the vote. Among those who had been urging commissioners to adopt the proposal was retired Air Force officer Shawn Smith, an ally of Lindell and Waldron. While the commissioners say they don’t believe anything untoward happened in their county in 2020, they said getting rid of Dominion Voting Systems machines, a particular target of Trump supporters since the election, is necessary to restore public trust in local elections.

“We are smart to play it safe,” said Gary Moyer, a Rio Blanco commissioner who supported ending the Dominion contract. “We’ve only got an average of about 3,000 voters. We’re a remote, small, rural county. I don’t think doing a hand count is out of the realm of possibility. We did it in the past for years.”

Moyer and another Rio Blanco commissioner are among a group of plaintiffs who last year sued Griswold, alleging that she illegally destroyed election records and exceeded her authority when she adopted emergency rules to prevent counties from conducting Arizona-style election reviews. Griswold has denied those claims. The case is pending.

Boots Campbell, the county clerk, countered in an interview that she believed it would take four judges more than 30 days to tally the roughly 3,500 ballots of a typical presidential contest. Griswold’s top election officer also sent a letter warning that the proposal could violate state and federal law.

But the pleas didn’t work — the commissioners took a preliminary vote to end their contract with Dominion and are scheduled to finalize the decision after a public hearing this month. They did not include any funding for additional election judges.

In Harvey County, Kan., a group of residents pressed officials not to purchase new election equipment earlier this year, not long after Frank, Lindell’s associate, made a presentation to the state legislature.

“They said, ‘We need to go back to all hand-counted paper ballots,’” said Harvey County Clerk Rick Piepho, who said local residents echoed Frank’s mantra to “Vote Amish” in public comments.

In the end, to Piepho’s relief, county leaders went ahead with the purchase. “Why do we need to have hand-counting if the system is working?” he asked.

Likewise, in Washoe County, Nev., which includes the city of Reno and is Nevada’s second-most populous county, commissioners rejected a sprawling 20-point “election integrity resolution” last month that included a hand-counting provision.

The 4-to-1 vote came after hours of impassioned testimony from residents. The only commissioner to vote in favor of the resolution was its author, Jeanne Herman, a Republican. In an interview with The Post, Herman said she had been suspicious about elections for years and heard many “horror stories” from Washoe residents. Now, following the defeat of her resolution, she said she intends to focus on getting rid of voting machines because they are, in her view, unreliable.

In her own personal life, she said, “I have been hacked and other things have happened to my computer and even my phone,” she said. “So I know that things can get messy sometimes with computers.”

In Nye County, Ramsland and Waldron were brought to speak by Marchant. County Clerk Sandra Merlino, a Republican official who has helped run elections since 1994, said even the small county would take days to count its votes by hand. The commissioners had at first planned to vote to direct her to adopt hand-counting. Had they done so, she was prepared to resign in protest that day.

But an analysis by the county’s attorney found that only the elected clerk has the power to decide how to conduct the county’s count. So instead of an order, the commission voted to ask Merlino to consider adopting the new method for a June primary and the November general election.

In a podcast interview the next day, Marchant predicted other counties would soon follow. It had not been necessary to prove fraud had taken place in Nye, he said. “We just showed them how vulnerable and how uncertifiable [the machines] are,” he said.

Merlino, who has announced she is not running for reelection after the bruising 2020 election, said she will use machines to count the vote for the primary. She has not yet decided whether she will retire before the November election. In any case, she said she believes the Republicans running to replace her are likely to pursue the idea of hand-counting whenever she leaves, without regard for how it would affect voters’ already shaky trust in the system.

“I don’t know how you get the comfort and trust back, I really don’t,” she said.

Instead of a more accurate count, she said, hand-counting would lead to the opposite result. “Our results will be delayed. They won’t add up,” she said. “Nye County will be an embarrassment.”

Alice Crites contributed to this report.