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A newly filed bill in the Florida House would permit supervisors of elections to hand-count ballots at the precinct level. It’s a method of counting votes that has been pushed by conservative voting advocates around the nation since Donald Trump lost the 2020 election.
“What it would do would allow supervisors of elections — if they choose to do so — to do hand counting at the precinct level,” says Pinellas County Republican Berny Jacques, who along with Lake County Republican Taylor Yarkosky is sponsoring the measure (HB 359).
The proposal would also prevent the Florida Department of State from authorizing voting systems that use hardware or software designed, owned, or licensed by foreign companies.
But one Florida Republican election official says the idea of hand counts is dead-on-arrival at his office.
“As for Lake County and hand counting of ballots, I will definitely NOT have anything whatsoever to do with such nonsense,” Lake County GOP Supervisor of Elections Alan Hays said in a written statement sent to the Phoenix. “I extend to these two legislators my sympathy for being sucked into the morass of lies and innuendo being propagated by so many people who know nothing about election equipment or the administration of elections.”
Counting ballots by hand in the U.S. is relatively rare, say election experts, with most jurisdictions using voting machines to tabulate results.
“It’s less than one-half of one percent of voters who live in jurisdictions that do election night hand counts,” says Pam Smith, president and CEO of Verified Voting, an organization focused on election security. She says that most of the jurisdictions that do hand count paper ballots have fewer than 1,000 registered voters and are in single-precinct municipalities in Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Wisconsin.
Some of the smallest counties in Florida, like Liberty and Lafayette, have more 4,000 registered voters. The Phoenix reached out to the supervisors of elections of both counties for comment about the proposal but did not receive an immediate response.
GOP lawmakers in at least six states introduced legislation in 2022 to require all election ballots to be counted by hand instead of electronic tabulators, the Associated Press reported.
“All in all, I feel that Berny’s bill is a huge step forward,” says Cathi Chamberlain with the group Defend Florida, which says it was designed to ensure election integrity. “Certainly, more than most other legislators are doing towards election integrity for 2024.”
Hand counts are used in Florida elections, but only in limited areas. Florida election law requires that after an election, the county’s canvassing board must conduct a manual audit of one randomly selected race that appeared on the ballot, of at least 1 percent but no more than 2 percent of the precincts.
Election law also requires that if a candidate is defeated by 0.25 or less of all votes cast in a specific race, there will be a manual recount of all of the overvotes and undervotes in the entire jurisdiction of the office.
The evidence that counting ballots by hand is more accurate than using machines is questionable.
In Nye County, Nevada, the local supervisor of elections estimated that after the first day of hand counting of ballots that took place after the 2022 midterm election, there was a 25 percent error rate.
A more academic study taken of two recounts in Wisconsin found that paper ballots originally counted with optical scanners were more accurate than ballots originally counted by hand. The review of a 2011 state Supreme Court election recount found that hand-counted paper ballots differed from the recount by 0.28 percent while a 2016 recount of the presidential election showed that hand-counted ballots were off by 0.18 percent while scanned ballots were off by 0.13 percent.
Jacques says he’s heard arguments on both sides of the issue.
“I’ve heard a lot of different takes on this, but it’s worth having the conversation, and legislation can spur a conversation, and we need to look at if it is a more accurate model,” he told the Phoenix last week in Tallahassee. “What’s important is that we’re not mandating that it is hand counted. But if a supervisor of elections feels like he can manage it and they can pursue it that way, we’re allowing some flexibility there.”
Smith from Verified Voting says that even in the jurisdictions that have been hand counting ballots, “that number has been shrinking.”
“The reason that it’s been shrinking is because technology is available that counts ballots quickly,” she says. “And you can check the accuracy of the count by using some of those voters’ verified paper ballots and going back and doing a post-election audit. That kind of post-election check on the count is something that happens pretty much across the country in most states now.”
Lake County Supervisor Hays says he’s heard about resorting to the hand counting of ballots for years but remains unimpressed by those advocating for such a change.
“This is not a new thing at all,” he told the Phoenix. “Why would you want to go back to the 1800s? Or even further? This is an absolutely absurd idea, and it’s irresponsible.”
The bill also says that the Department of State may not approve any voting system that incorporates hardware or software that is “designed, produced, owned, or licensed by an entity that is owned, operated, or majority-controlled by a foreign company or a domestic company registered in another country.”
Arizona lawmakers passed legislation earlier this year to require election equipment be made only in the U.S. However, no voting machines met those specifications, so the bill wouldn’t have actually gone into effect until 2028. It was later vetoed by the governor, however.
If passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor, the Florida bill would go into effect on July 1, 2024.
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