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Elections can be fast, cheap, and accurate — but not all at the same time
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Elections can be fast, cheap, and accurate — but not all at the same time

Some election critics want fast results and hand counting. It’s impossible to have both.

  • Staff at the Pima County Elections Department prepare ballots for counting on Oct. 17, 2020 after they were processed by the County Recorder’s Office for the Nov. 2020 election.
    Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.comStaff at the Pima County Elections Department prepare ballots for counting on Oct. 17, 2020 after they were processed by the County Recorder’s Office for the Nov. 2020 election.

“This article was originally published by Votebeat, a nonprofit news organization covering local election administration and voting access.”

I’ve heard it since I started covering this beat: Everyone wants elections to be fast, accurate, and cheap. Pick two of those. You can’t have three. 

Some candidates haven’t gotten the message.

For example, Kari Lake, the GOP nominee for governor of Arizona, declared that Arizonans should know who the winner is “when they go to bed on election night.”

That’s interesting. Because Lake, who is now running against current Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, a Democrat, wants to eliminate mail voting in a state where it’s wildly popular, instead requiring voters to cast ballots in local precincts on Election Day, and also get rid of the machines used to tabulate ballots. Instead, Lake advocates a switch to hand-counting paper ballots.  

In theory, Lake could push for all votes to be cast on a single day and counted that very night by the hands of thousands and thousands of sleepy volunteers. For that to be remotely possible, though, counties would need to spend untold millions of dollars on staffing. It’s, as the Washington Post has written, a terrible idea.

Lake’s own primary results are an example of how accurate results take time. Lake was trailing her opponent, Karrin Taylor Robson, for most of the night last Tuesday. While behind, she whipped up voter fraud conspiracy theories before quickly changing her tune when she took the lead as absentee ballots were counted. Her team later called it a “blowout.” She won by more than 4 percentage points.

Ironically, it evokes the 2020 pattern — Trump up, before votes cast by mailed ballots helped take it for Biden — that conspiracy theorizers have deemed suspicious. Given Lake was clearly laying the groundwork to allege the election results were fraudulent in some way, if this had played out to her opponent’s benefit, she’d be questioning the results. Instead, satisfied with her victory, Lake has celebrated the results.

The expectation of instant results is irrational.  It stems from how elections were conducted in the 2000s, when counties were able to boop-beep-boop their way to results without counting a single physical ballot, given the popularity of machines that electronically record votes. Counting paper ballots takes longer. In addition, Arizona’s legal deadline for counties to canvass the results isn’t until Aug. 16, and state officials don’t certify final results until Aug. 22.

Nevertheless, “ain’t gonna be no concession speech coming from this guy,” said Republican secretary of state candidate Mark Finchem, who has made plenty of his own fact-free claims of fraud. “I’m going to demand a 100 percent hand count if there’s the slightest hint that there’s an impropriety.” 

Finchem won, and has not since requested any recount despite repeatedly suggesting malfeasance throughout the race.

It appears that the real test of whether an election is legitimate was, for these candidates, whether or not they won.

Back then

Vote counting has always been, well, difficult. Inventor Jacob H. Meyers invented a lever-operated “Automatic Booth,” which was popular from around 1910 to around 1980, dominating around 80 percent of the market. Douglas Jones, a computer science professor at the University of Iowa, said the public trusted these gigantic machines “because of their sheer physicality.” For voters, they were easy to use: Voters pulled a lever for each race, or a single lever for straight-ticket voting.

But behind the scenes, things were more complex. (Sound familiar?) The more than 200 levers on the face of the machine were prevented from fully recording a vote until all of the races were accounted for, in the event a voter changed their mind. The machines used no electricity, and had to be manually linked to each race for the straight ticket vote. They were famously fragile — even a pencil tip could be used to affect the mechanics of the machines, preventing counting or changing votes.

In other voting news

A Reuters analysis found that a team working with Matthew DePerno, the Republican candidate for state attorney general in Michigan, gained unauthorized access to a voting tabulator in Richfield Township, one of a series of incidents under investigation by current state Attorney General Dana Nessel, his opponent. Nessel is now seeking an outside prosecutor. 

Pennsylvania election officials told a court they mistakenly certified the results of the May 17 primary election in Butler County, even though the count didn’t include undated mail ballots in its official total. The state is suing three other counties over the same issue, but said “human error” led it to omit Butler County from the suit. 

In scattered, small-scale instances, conspiracy theorists and so-called election integrity activists are trying to organize observers to monitor drop boxes during elections, seeking evidence of fraud. Election officials are concerned about the potential for voter intimidation if the trend continues, the New York Times reports

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, says a photo of an unmonitored drop box in Broward County should be investigated by the state’s new elections police unit. A new Florida law made unattended ballot boxes illegal. Broward County officials said a supervisor was present but was cropped out of the photo, and that all ballot boxes are being monitored as required by the law.

A nonprofit associated with retiring GOP U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger, a member of the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attacks on the U.S. Capitol, is the latest to announce a new training program for prospective candidates and election workers.

Facebook owner Meta has recently said less publicly about its election misinformation safeguards despite looming threats to November midterms, reports the AP. The company had published more than 30 statements on how it would combat election misinformation between 2018 and 2020, yet it has only published one this year. Meta says elections remain a priority. 

Texas election officials are taking steps, including new ballot inserts with instructions, to help voters navigate new ID requirements for mail ballots, in hopes of lowering rejection rates, the Houston Chronicle reports.

“Votebeat is a nonprofit news organization covering local election integrity and voting access. Sign up for their newsletters here.”

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