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Why hand-counting ballots is such a bad idea

Election officials in Florida recount ballots by hand in 2018. (Mike Stocker/South Florida Sun-Sentinel/AP)

An earlier version of this story stated that, after the 2020 election, Georgia performed an audit by randomly selecting ballots across the state, and that the process took two weeks. Officials reviewed all ballots statewide, and the process took less than a week. This story has been corrected.


An earlier version of this story described a hand-count audit as a hand recount. That language has been changed.

There’s a small but forceful push in right-wing circles to have ballots in upcoming elections entirely counted by hand. Lawmakers in at least six states have proposed switching to hand-counted paper ballots, The Washington Post’s Rosalind Helderman, Amy Gardner and Emma Brown report.

The idea is derived from accusations, made out of whole cloth, that the 2020 election was stolen — and that voting machines are easily hacked and can’t be trusted.

That’s false. Voting machines have been proved safe and accurate, especially when combined with audits to check their accuracy. And tallying results without machines could open up future elections to more chaos, even fraud.

Here’s how our ballots are counted now, and why going back to voting and counting entirely by hand is such a bad idea.

How we count ballots now

Most jurisdictions use voting machines to tabulate results. Voters either fill out a paper ballot and then feed it into a machine, or they make their choices on a touch screen that prints a paper ballot. (States spent a lot of money after the 2000 presidential election to revamp voting machines to ensure none would leave “hanging chads” — the center of the dispute about whether Republican George W. Bush or Democrat Al Gore won Florida.)

But the voting process does not entirely rely on machines. The machines create a paper copy of a ballot for officials to keep. After elections, officials review a statistically significant portion of those ballots by hand to make sure that their results mirror what the machines got. The process has been in place for decades, and it works.

Here’s why election experts say taking machines out of elections would only inject uncertainty into the process.

1. It takes a lot of time

Without machines, getting preliminary results from elections could take weeks or even months. It’s hard to predict what a hand-counted contest would look like, because it’s so rare, but what happened last year in Arizona is instructive, said Liz Howard, a former top election official in Virginia who is now with the Brennan Center for Justice.

After former president Donald Trump lost that state, a Republican-supported audit tried to recount 2.1 million ballots in Arizona’s Maricopa County. The audit focused on just two races, and it took months. The result confirmed President Biden’s win by almost exactly the same margin as the machines had. On Wednesday, Arizona’s attorney general, a Republican, released a report saying he found no evidence of widespread fraud in the 2020 election.

Maricopa, Arizona’s largest county, has 4.5 million people — so counting all ballots by hand for all races would be likely take months, too. “That outcome is not ideal,” Howard said.

2. It opens up the process to more errors

Humans aren’t particularly good at repetitive tasks such as counting ballots. Machines were made for that, said Wendy Weiser, who directs the democracy program at the Brennan Center for Justice.

Weiser said there aren’t many studies about the accuracy of hand-counting, but a 2012 study looked at error rates for a popular hand-counting method and found a 2 percent error rate. “There are multiple elections won or lost by much less than 1 percent,” she said.

If you’re entirely hand-counting ballots, voters fill out their ballots entirely by paper — which opens up a lot of room for mistakes.

The disabilities community in particular opposes all-paper elections, said Michael Morley, an election expert at Florida State University and contributor to the conservative Federalist Society. For example, if someone has arthritis, it can be difficult to mark the right spot, make the mark dark enough or erase marks completely.

Other times, people fill out the ballot in random ways, like by crossing out candidates they don’t like. That can happen in absentee voting, where voters fill out paper ballots at home, without election officials to answer questions.

“If you go back to a purely paper-based system, you are enhancing the opportunity for human error,” he said.

3. Hand counts are easier for bad actors to exploit

Because hand-counting is slower and more prone to error than machine counts, election experts say it opens the entire process up to manipulation.

Trump used the four days between Election Day, on Nov. 3, 2020, and the declaration of President Biden as the winner, on Nov. 7, to sow doubt about the election process — a narrative he continued to build up in the months before Biden took office.

Imagine what could happen if major states don’t have even preliminary results of an election for months. Politicians could declare themselves the winners before all the ballots were tallied— as Trump tried to do on election night.

With Trump and his allies trying to install election deniers in positions of power where they would oversee elections and ballot counts, there would be even more reason for voters to doubt hand-counted results. It’s easy to see these officials coming under pressure to disqualify ballots on the basis of motivated reasoning. And, in general, it’s easy to understand why an opposing party might distrust a hand count supervised by its rivals. In any scenario, someone could cry fraud, suddenly throwing an election into chaos.

We already have methods for reviewing ballots by hand

Audits conducted by hand are very different than a hand count.

Most voting machines create a paper ballot that election officials archive. After elections they pull out a sampling of paper ballots to check the accuracy of the machine count. That’s different — and way less time-consuming — than first counting all the paper ballots by hand, Weiser said.

There’s an entire government agency, the Election Assistance Commission, that publishes guidelines on the best ways to count and recount ballots. The EAC recommends that election officials audit their machine counts after every election — often using those paper copies of ballots — “to strengthen public confidence in the accuracy of machine tallies.” Most states do that, the commission reports.

After Trump narrowly lost the state in 2020, Georgia called for an audit of the results, which turned into a hand recount of nearly every one of its 5 million ballots. That process took less than a week and confirmed Biden’s win.

To avoid potential hacking, the commission also has guidelines for jurisdictions to keep the machines off the Internet as much as possible (although some require Internet access to transmit results).