Hand counting vs. voting machines: Debate rages in South Dakota

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Nearly 90% of county officials who administer elections in the state don’t find hand counts effective or efficient. Activists counter that they don’t trust the machines.

Most of the county officials who administer elections in South Dakota don’t consider hand counting to be an effective or efficient method of tabulating votes.

That’s the result of a South Dakota News Watch survey that saw input from 49 of the state’s 66 county auditors. Auditors are elected officials who supervise county, state and federal elections as well as maintain financial records and other duties. Nearly 90% of those who responded (43 of 49) answered “no” to the question of whether hand counting is an “effective and efficient method of tabulating ballots.” One auditor responded “yes” and four were uncommitted. There was one “no comment.” “(Counting votes by hand) increases the chances of human error and is extremely time-consuming,” said Douglas County Auditor Phyllis Barker, echoing the concerns of many of her peers. “I have complete trust in the tabulation machines we currently use.”

Many of the auditors noted that South Dakota passed a law in 2023 requiring post-election audits using hand counts of randomly selected precincts to make sure results match up with machine tabulations. There are also test decks used to evaluate the accuracy of electronic vote counters before each election. Machine vote tabulators must have an error rate no worse than 1 in 500,000 to be certified by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. A Nevada election official in Nye County, with more than 10,000 voters, recruited hundreds of volunteers to hand-count ballots in November 2022 after expressing skepticism about machines. He estimated a human error rate of 25% after the first day. ”Hand counting has its place,” said Spink County Auditor Theresa Hodges. “For small municipal and school elections, with generally one to two contests on their ballots, it is doable and the most responsible decision fiscally for those entities. For larger elections with multiple contests, hand counting leaves too much room for human error and is not the most efficient way to tabulate results.

The most steadfast support of hand counts came from the state’s most populous county: Minnehaha County Auditor Leah Anderson. She has clashed with county commissioners by expressing distrust of election technology and advocating hand counting, a position held by South Dakota Canvassing Group, a grassroots organization pushing for election reform.

“If done properly with a good system in place and training ahead of time, (hand counting) can definitely be effective and efficient, especially in smaller counties,” Anderson told News Watch. “In Minnehaha County, we would need a larger volume of volunteers with equal party representation to make it happen effectively and efficiently.” Anderson said she is not formally involved with South Dakota Canvassing, the citizen group behind a campaign to lobby counties to adopt hand counting for 2024 or bypass county commissions by forcing a public vote through petitions.

She has engaged in hand counting demonstrations and research with computer analyst Rick Weible, a “friend and ally” of South Dakota Canvassing who has been instrumental in urging South Dakota legislators for stronger election security. “(South Dakota Canvassing) does not have membership and I am not formally involved other than consideration of research they provide,” said Anderson, who ousted incumbent Republican Ben Kyte in the 2022 primary. “I am friends with some of the founders and I appreciate all of the work they do in researching topics.

Fall River, Gregory will hand count for 2024 elections The hand count debate comes as South Dakota is viewed as a proving ground by election reformists who claim that recent elections across the county were marred by hacking or fraud, allegations repeatedly rejected by courts of law as well as Democratic and Republican election leaders.

One of the most prominent voices is My Pillow founder and Donald Trump supporter Mike Lindell, whose 2021 “cyber symposium” in Sioux Falls inspired South Dakota Canvassing founders Jessica Pollema and Cindy Meyer to scrutinize what they see as voting system vulnerabilities.

The group first drew attention in 2022 by filing lawsuits and freedom-of-information requests seeking to acquire cast vote records from the 2020 presidential election, in which Democratic candidate Joe Biden defeated Trump, a Republican. Lindell had Pollema as a guest on his web show in late February and praised the use of citizen petitions and public pressure at county commission meetings to try to restore the use of hand counting for the 2024 election cycle.

’Purveyors of false claims’ spread doubts, official says The South Dakota Canvassing website lists more than a dozen counties in which requests for petitions or signature collection have occurred. Pollema, who ran unsuccessfully for Lincoln County auditor in 2022, didn’t respond to a request from News Watch to clarify how many counties are seeing active signature collection.

“This is the chance we have to blaze the trail for our whole country to get rid of these machines,” Lindell said during the Feb. 22 web show. “This is the plan I had (a while ago), and South Dakota is just out in front of everybody. They have the perfect prototype.”

South Dakota Secretary of State Monae Johnson, who made statements during her 2022 campaign that connected her to election denialism, has been critical of some of the South Dakota Canvassing’s activities as well as Weible’s efforts to impact state election law.