In A Rare Step, 3 South Dakota Counties Are Set To Vote On Counting Ballots By Hand

From left, Jessica Pollema speaks Oct. 19, 2023, at the Military Heritage Alliance in Sioux Falls, S.D. She is a co-founder of South Dakota Canvassing and a leading advocate of getting rid of the machines in favor of hand counting ballots in South Dakota. (Stu Whitney/South Dakota News Watch via AP)
From left, Jessica Pollema speaks Oct. 19, 2023, at the Military Heritage Alliance in Sioux Falls, S.D. She is a co-founder of South Dakota Canvassing and a leading advocate of getting rid of the machines in favor of hand counting ballots in South Dakota. (Stu Whitney/South Dakota News Watch via AP)

Voters in at least three rural South Dakota counties are set to decide Tuesday whether to return to counting ballots by hand, the latest communities around the country to consider ditching machine tabulators based on unfounded conspiracy theories stemming from the 2020 presidential election.

The three counties, each with fewer than 6,000 residents, would be among the first in the U.S. to require old-school hand counts, which long ago were replaced by ballot tabulators in most of the country.

A number of other states and local governments have considered banning machine counting since the 2020 election, but most of those efforts have sputtered over concerns of cost, the time it takes to count by hand and the difficulty of hiring more staff to do it.

Experts say counting the votes by hand is less accurate that machine tabulation.

Supporters of the South Dakota effort aren't deterred by such worries.

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

Like efforts elsewhere, the South Dakota push for hand counting has its origins in false claims pushed by former President Donald Trump and his allies after the 2020 presidential election. They made claims of widespread voter fraud and spread conspiracy theories that voting machines were manipulated to steal the election. There has been no evidence to support such claims, but they have become embedded in many places that voted heavily for Trump.

The citizen initiatives in South Dakota to prohibit tabulating machines are set to appear on Tuesday's primary ballot in Gregory, Haakon and Tripp counties. Similar petition efforts for future measure votes are underway in more than 40 other counties in the conservative state, Pollema said. At least four counties have rejected attempts to force hand counting.

Earlier, the Fall River County Commission voted in February to count ballots by hand for the June election, and Tripp County counted its general election ballots by hand in 2022.

If the measure passes Tuesday, Gregory County Auditor Julie Bartling said the county will have to increase the number of precincts to lessen the burden of hand counting. That will force it to buy more assisted voting devices for disabled voters. The county also will face the difficult task of hiring more election workers.

Bartling, who runs elections in the county, opposes the initiative and said she has “full faith in the automated tabulators.”

Todd and Tripp County Auditor Barb DeSersa said she also opposes attempts to require hand counting of all ballots because the process isn't as accurate. She said the 2022 hand count left election workers exhausted.

“I know the ones that have done it the last time didn't want nothing to do with 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 people to volunteer to do that,” DeSersa said.

DeSersa's office estimated it would cost $17,000 to $25,000 for elections in Tripp County to be counted by hand, compared to about $19,000 to $21,000 using tabulators. Haakon County Auditor Stacy Pinney said she initially estimated hand counting will cost between $750 and $4,500, but “overall, an election cost is hard to determine at this point.”

According to a state attorney's analysis for Haakon County, it would take two election workers using a tabulator three to four hours to count all the ballots. It would take 15 to 20 election workers between five and 15 hours to do a hand count, depending on the number of contested races.

The three counties have a combined 7,725 active registered voters, according to a statewide report.

Republican state Rep. Rocky Blare, who lives in Tripp County, said he will vote against the measure.

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

Secretary of State Monae Johnson, a Republican, expressed confidence in tabulating machines, noting they have been used for years. In a statement, she pointed to "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, a process included in a 2023 state law. It involves hand counting all the votes in two races from 5% of precincts in every county to ensure the machine tabulation is accurate. Johnson's office said there was no evidence of any widespread problems in 2020 or 2022. One person voted twice, she said, and was caught.

After repeated attacks against machine-counting of ballots in the 2020 presidential election, Dominion Voting Systems last year reached a $787 million settlement in a defamation case against Fox News over false claims the network repeatedly aired. The judge in that case found it was “CRYSTAL clear” none of the claims about Dominion’s machines was true, and testimony showed many Fox hosts quietly doubted the claims their network was airing.

Since 2020, only a few counties have made the switch to hand counting. In California, officials in Shasta County voted to get rid of their ballot tabulators, but state lawmakers later restricted hand counts to limited circumstances. Officials in Arizona's Mohave County rejected a proposal to hand count ballots in 2023, citing the $1.1 million cost.

David Levine, a former local election official in Idaho who is now a senior fellow with the Alliance for Securing Democracy, said research has shown hand counting large numbers of ballots is more costly, less accurate and takes more time than machine tabulators.

“If you listen to conspiracy theorists and election skeptics throughout the U.S., one reason the 2020 election was illegitimate was because of an algorithm. Hence, if you take computers out of the voting process, you’ll have a more secure election,” Levine said. “The only problem: it’s not true.”

While some areas do count ballots by hand, mainly in the Northeast, it typically happens in places with a small number of registered voters. Hand counts are common during post-election tests to check that machines are counting ballots correctly, but only a small portion of the ballots are manually checked.

Election experts say it’s unrealistic to think workers in large jurisdictions, with tens or hundreds of thousands of voters, could count all their ballots by hand and report results quickly, especially since ballots often include multiple races.

“The issue is that people aren’t very good at large, tedious, repetitive tasks like counting ballots, and computers are,” Levine said. “Those who believe otherwise are either unaware of this reality or choose to ignore it.”


Dura reported from Bismarck, North Dakota. Associated Press writer Christina A. Cassidy in Atlanta contributed to this story.