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Research finds hand counting ballots to be less accurate and more expensive

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Humans are not as good as machines when it comes to certain tasks. That includes counting things over and over and over. And that's a big reason why election officials, especially those in large counties, use machines to help them count ballots. Over the past few years, though, there's been a push on the far right to move back to hand-counting ballots. NPR voting correspondent Miles Parks has been following that push. Hey, Miles.

MILES PARKS, BYLINE: Hey there.

KELLY: Where is this happening?

PARKS: So conspiracies around machines have been festering for the last couple years. It's a big talking point for people like MyPillow founder Mike Lindell and people in his circle who say that some sort of algorithm flipped votes in 2020. Now, we know obviously that is not the case. But the idea is, get rid of the computers, and you'll get rid of whatever fraud happened there. The epicenter of this movement in the U.S. seems at this point to be Nevada, where election denier Republican Jim Marchant is running to be secretary of state there. He's gone to a number of counties trying to get them to ditch their vote-counting machines. Here he is speaking at a county commission meeting in Nye County earlier this year.

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JIM MARCHANT: It's imperative that you secure the trust of your constituents in Nye County by ensuring that you have a fair and transparent election. And the only way to do that is to not use electronic voting tabulation machines.

PARKS: Now, again, that is not true. But Nye County still listened, and they're going to do a hand count this November along with their machine count. These sorts of pushes are happening all across the country.

KELLY: Yeah. So this is a whole trend. How are election officials all over the country responding?

PARKS: So I talked about that with Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon, who's a Democrat, and he told me a group there has also been pushing, going county by county, trying to push for these sorts of hand counts.

STEVE SIMON: No county, thankfully, has gone in for that. But it is a movement, and we're keeping our eye on it. And it's distressing to see.

PARKS: Now, it's distressing to him because moving back to fully hand-counted ballots and getting machines out of this process would make voting run worse in every sense. It would make it more expensive. It would make it so elections take a lot longer to count. And most importantly, it would make the counts less accurate.

KELLY: Yeah, that does feel like the most important point. How do we know that?

PARKS: So there have been a few studies that have actually confirmed this. Most recently there was a study that was published in 2018 that looked at Wisconsin, which has a lot of really small election jurisdictions. Some places there hand-count. Some places use machines to help with the count. Researchers there looked at two statewide elections that both recently had recounts and found that in both cases, the counties that had machines help with their counts were closer to the final recounted tallies than the counties that hand-counted their ballots. As you mentioned at the top, humans generally are not good at really monotonous, precise tasks like counting. And then if you add in the fact that right now election officials are under this really intense scrutiny and, around election season, these are people who are working 15-, 16-, 17-hour days, kind of makes sense that they would make some mistakes in that counting process.

KELLY: So if that's all true, then why are some on the far right arguing, no, let's go back to hand-counting everything?

PARKS: So experts I've talked to see this as part of a broader trend where these sorts of election conspiracy theorists are working to make elections basically run worse and more chaotic under the guise of election integrity. I spoke about this with Jennifer Morrell, who's a former election administrator and is now a consultant. And here's what she said about the people pushing for hand counts.

JENNIFER MORRELL: They don't even understand what that looks like and what the process is to do it accurately and correctly, or they wouldn't be calling for that. So, like, it gets to continue just to feed the mistrust of the system.

PARKS: So if election-denying candidates do win state and local races this November, it's going to be something to watch from a policy perspective.

KELLY: NPR voting correspondent Miles Parks. Thanks for watching for us.

PARKS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Miles Parks is a reporter on NPR's Washington Desk. He covers voting and elections, and also reports on breaking news.