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Three South Dakota Counties to Vote on Rare Hand-counting Ballots Initiative


At least three rural South Dakota counties will decide Tuesday whether to return to hand-counting ballots, the latest localities to consider dumping machine tabulators based on unproven 2020 presidential election conspiracy theories.

The three counties, each with fewer than 6,000 citizens, would be among the first in the U.S. to require hand counts, which were replaced by ballot tabulators nationwide.

Since the 2020 election, several states and local governments have tried outlawing machine counting, but most have failed due to cost, time, and staffing issues.

Experts think manual vote counting is less accurate than machine tabulation.

Such concerns don’t discourage South Dakota supporters.

“We believe that a decentralized approach to elections is much more secure, much more transparent and that citizens should have oversight over their elections,” said SD Canvassing president Jessica Pollema.

Like other efforts, the South Dakota hand-counting movement stems from misleading assertions made by former President Donald Trump and his backers following the 2020 election. They alleged extensive voter fraud and conspiracy theories that voting machines stole the election. Many places that voted solidly for Trump have adopted similar assertions despite no evidence.

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Tuesday’s primary ballot in Gregory, Haakon, and Tripp counties will include South Dakota citizen proposals to ban tabulating devices. Pollema said more than 40 conservative counties are also petitioning for future measure votes. At least four counties have rejected forced hand counting.

The Fall River County Commission decided in February to hand-count June ballots, and Tripp County did it in 2022 for its general election.

If the initiative passes Tuesday, Gregory County Auditor Julie Bartling said the county will need more precincts to reduce manual counting. It will have to buy more disabled-friendly voting gear. Hiring more election workers will be challenging for the county.

County election administrator Bartling opposes the measure and has “full faith in the automated tabulators.”

Todd and Tripp County Auditor Barb DeSersa opposes hand counting all ballots because it’s inaccurate. She stated the 2022 hand count fatigued election workers.

“I know the ones that did it the last time didn’t want to do it this time, so I think once they do it once or twice, they’ll get tired of it, and it’ll be harder to find volunteers,” DeSersa said.

DeSersa’s staff calculated that hand-counting Tripp County elections would cost $17,000 to $25,000, compared to $19,000 to $21,000 utilizing tabulators. Haakon County Auditor Stacy Pinney estimated hand counting would cost $750–$4,500, but “overall, an election cost is hard to determine at this point.”

State attorneys for Haakon County estimate that two election workers using a tabulator would take three to four hours to count all the ballots. With 15 to 20 election workers, a hand count could take 5 to 15 hours, depending on the number of races.

A statewide assessment shows 7,725 active registered voters in the three counties.

Republican state Rep. Rocky Blare of Tripp County will oppose the legislation.

“They can’t prove to me that there’s been any issues that I think have affected our election in South Dakota,” Blare added.

As tabulating devices have been utilized for years, Republican Secretary of State Monae Johnson voiced confidence. She cited “safeguards built in throughout the process and the post-election audit on the machines after the primary and general election to ensure they are working properly.”

The June election will be the first with a post-election audit, per a 2023 state law. It entails hand-counting all votes in two races from 5% of precincts in every county to assure machine tabulation accuracy. Johnson’s office reported no major issues in 2020 or 2022. She said a double voter was detected.

Last year, Dominion Voting Systems settled a $787 million defamation complaint against Fox News over false statements it made about machine-counting ballots in the 2020 presidential election. The judge deemed it “CRYSTAL clear” that Dominion’s machines were not real, and testimony showed several Fox commentators secretly disputed their network’s assertions.

Few counties have switched to hand counting since 2020. State lawmakers limited hand counts after Shasta County authorities voted to eliminate ballot tabulators. Mohave County officials rejected a $1.1 million hand-counting ballot proposal in 2023.

Former Idaho election commissioner David Levine, now a senior fellow with the Alliance for Securing Democracy, said data shows hand counting huge numbers of ballots is more expensive, inaccurate, and time-consuming than machine tabulators.

Conspiracy theorists and election skeptics across the U.S. say an algorithm rigged the 2020 election. Thus, excluding computers from voting will make elections safer, Levine added. “The only problem: it’s not true.”

In the Northeast, manually counting ballots is common in communities with few registered voters. Hand counts are used during post-election examinations to verify machine counting, however, only a small percentage of ballots are hand examined.

According to election experts, workers in large jurisdictions with tens or hundreds of thousands of voters cannot count all their ballots by hand and deliver results swiftly, especially since ballots sometimes include numerous races.

“People aren’t good at large, tedious, repetitive tasks like counting ballots, but computers are,” Levine added. “Those who think otherwise are either unaware or choose to ignore it.”

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