Unfounded concerns about the integrity of the 2020 election have spiraled into a crisis of confidence in our nation’s core election infrastructure. Over the past two years, this has taken the form of personal threats to election officials’ physical safety, a proliferation of unofficial audits, a concentration of state legislatures’ authority to usurp election results, and, most recently, an attempt to move to entirely hand counted elections.
At least six states and dozens of local jurisdictions have introduced legislation to outlaw the use of ballot tabulators. These actions are based on the false premise that hand counts are the optimal way to ensure accurate results. In truth, tabulators have higher accuracy rates than hand counts, are the key to expedient results on election night, and reduce resource demands on local governments.
Comparing Machine Tabulation to Hand Counts
Ballot tabulators have modernized the vote counting process by providing a way for election officials to count voter selections from paper ballots quickly and accurately. As with all voting technology, tabulators are subject to extensive security protections and are certified before use, typically by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. Nearly all election jurisdictions also conduct public logic and accuracy tests of tabulators before each election to ensure that they are properly programmed to scan ballots.
Tabulators are used by over 90% of U.S. election jurisdictions. Only a handful of small jurisdictions continue to rely on hand counts alone, given their complex, imprecise, and resource-intensive nature. The U.S. has some of the longest ballots in the democratic world because elections are held at the local, state and federal levels. The more contests on the ballot, the more challenging a hand count becomes.
Tabulators improve election administration along three primary vectors: accuracy, trustworthiness, and efficiency.
Humans are notoriously poor at completing rote, repetitive tasks (especially if counting begins after a full day of working the polls). One election official noted to BPC that she had four sets of workers hand count the same ballots only to receive four different results. Tabulators, by contrast, are designed intentionally for this sort of repetition, and research confirms that tabulators have a lower error rate than hand counts. In their 2018 Election Law Journal article Learning from Recounts, Ansolabehere et al. analyzed two statewide recounts in Wisconsin, concluding that “Scanning paper ballots produces a more accurate election night count than hand-counting.”
Even when tabulators are used, the results Americans see on election night are unofficial. Election officials vigorously check and verify the results during the canvass and certification process that follows election day. This typically involves hand counting a selection of ballots to verify the results produced by the tabulator. The BPC Task Force on Elections previously recommended that states require audits after every election, fully funded by government resources. Pairing robust audits with machine tabulators ensures quick and accurate results on election night that are thoroughly vetted in the canvass period that follows.
Recounts of single races alone often take days to complete. During their statewide 2020 presidential election recount, Georgia counties had to temporarily reassign employees from other county departments to staff operations. Counties had five days to complete the recount, and many had to work around the clock to meet the deadline.
To get a hand count of a full ballot with dozens of contests, Americans would have to wait weeks, if not several months, to get an accurate result. Extended results reporting timelines are precarious for voter trust as candidates can capitalize on these periods of uncertainty to sow distrust in the results. As the 2020 election demonstrated, even when officials proactively warn that election results will take longer than usual, delayed results are perceived as inherently suspect by candidates and members of the public.
Tabulators are proven to produce more accurate results on election night. In our rapid information society, expedient reporting is not only an expectation of the American public but a cornerstone of generating trusted results.
Efficiency: Workforce Implications
Simply attaining the necessary staff would be an insurmountable barrier to the widespread adoption of hand counts, especially given the poll worker shortages already beleaguering jurisdictions nationwide.
Elections in the United States regularly have dozens of contests on each ballot, varying by state and jurisdiction. It is not unusual to have upwards of 50 possible selections, including state and federal legislators, local and county positions, ballot initiatives, and more. Tabulators can accommodate multiple offices and ballot questions with ease, while each additional item in a hand count raises its propensity for error and increases the time and resources necessary to complete it.
When hand counting a single race, officials employ a “Stack and Count” method in which ballots are sorted into piles for each candidate. The sorted ballots are put into bundles of 10 or 20 ballots, which are then counted to determine the final vote. It is best practice for ballots and bundles to be counted multiple times, for ballots to be sorted by bipartisan teams, and for sorting to be open to observation.
As Georgia demonstrated in 2020, hand counting even a single race necessitates large increases in election workers to sort, count, and confirm ballots. The process is further complicated when attempting to hand count a full ballot. When a ballot has multiple ballot questions, “Stack and Count” is not a feasible option and jurisdictions must instead use a “Read and Mark” tally process requiring at least five workers. Typically, one worker states the vote for each candidate and issue on a ballot, another worker views the ballot to ensure each vote is accurately stated, and then two tally clerks record each vote.
Before electronic tabulating systems were widely used, many jurisdictions conducted hand counts after the polls closed on election night. To ensure that a precinct board could finish tabulating within a few hours of the close of polls, Michigan limited the maximum size of precincts to 400 registered voters. That calculation was based directly on the number of offices and issues on the general election ballot and the number of ballots a precinct team could tabulate in a short window.
Tabulating ballots by hand (many of which had 50 to 60 different contests) took a significant amount of time and was not a sustainable system in the long term. Michigan introduced mechanical lever machines into urban areas initially, followed by today’s system in which all ballots are tabulated by optical scan.
If Michigan were to revert to the 400-voter precincts needed to sustain hand counts, the state’s total number of precincts would increase from the current 4,800 to 17,500. The workforce needed would increase more than 300% from 24,000 precinct inspectors in election day polling places to 87,500. There is neither a workforce nor the facilities available to sustain 17,500 precincts.
Tabulators, Paper Ballots, and Regular Audits Collectively Enhance Election Integrity
Elections are highly complex operations, and errors inevitably occur. The most accurate results come not from relying on either machine tabulation or hand counts alone, but from pairing the two together. This balance minimizes the potential for human error during vote counting while maintaining a strong system of manual error-checking to unearth discrepancies that may arise during tabulation.
The BPC Task Force on Elections recommends that states pair voter-verified paper ballots with regular, government funded tabulation audits after every election. With this setup, jurisdictions that use tabulators would be able to generate quick and accurate results on election night. Those initial, unofficial results would then be confirmed through tabulation audits in which a selection of ballots are counted by hand to verify the tabulators’ accuracy. Audits should occur prior to the certification of results so that election officials have ample time to address discrepancies, should they be identified.
Investing in Democratic Values
The hallmark of a well-run election is the accuracy of the results. As the very foundation of our electoral system comes under threat from misinformation and pervasive distrust, lawmakers and citizens alike must invest in reforms that strengthen and support election administration. Tabulators have been a core part of generating accurate election results for decades; rather than seek to undo the progress that has been made, we must look ahead to that which is still to come.
The Bipartisan Policy Center Task Force on Elections—a group of 26 election officials from 18 states—emphasized the importance of tabulators in a unanimous April 2022 statement: Ballot Tabulators Are Essential to Election Integrity.
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