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Opinion: Hand-counting of ballots — been there, done that

When I was a teenager, my father and I would walk several blocks to a store where results from the current election were posted on large sheets of paper in the windows. Store employees with black markers would update the results every 15 minutes or so. I remember that we rarely went before 11 p.m. even though the polls closed at 8 p.m., just as they do today, because we knew it would take quite a bit of time for election workers to drive to the courthouse in Mauch Chunk (today’s Jim Thorpe) to have the ballots counted by hand.

This was nearly 70 years ago. Since then, the voting process has become much more streamlined as optical scan voting machines came into existence in 1962. Between then and 2020, most results were known the same night as the election. Only those whose outcome might have been affected by absentee and/or write-in votes were not settled until the official count occurred, usually the Friday after the election.

With the advent of no-excuses mail-in ballots in 2020 and the prevalence of COVID-19 cases, we saw the results, which included a much slower count and allegations of widespread fraud, delayed. None of the fraud claims were confirmed, according to the results of numerous court challenges, but the seeds were sown for what exists today - a feeling that somehow our election results are not accurate and that the system is rigged, even though there is no proof.

Many states have already adopted restrictions that many believe will discourage or even disenfranchise legitimate voters. Is it a coincidence that all of these restrictions are being passed by Republican-majority legislatures? It was obvious from the beginning that mail-in voting was much more heavily used by Democrats than Republicans, so Republican candidates who had built sizable leads when in-person voting had been counted saw their leads melt away after the mail-in vote had been tallied. That’s when the cries of “foul” and “fraud” intensified.

Voting machines themselves have been vilified because of unfounded claims of manipulation and cheating. This has led to a move to revert to the hand-counting of every ballot, a task whose burden will fall on our counties and our election bureau personnel.

Those who believe that the hand-counting of ballots is foolproof are foolish. A study funded by the National Science Foundation showed that an error rate of between 1% and 2% occurred in the hand-counting of election results, to say nothing of the extraordinary time and effort it takes.

While an error rate of 1% or 2% may seem small, it could make a big difference in close races. For example, in the 2020 presidential election in Pennsylvania, Democrat and Republican voters combined cast 6.8 million votes. An average of 1.5% would have amounted to 102,000 voting errors, considerably more than counts done by voting machine readers.

Republican lawmakers in at least six states have introduced legislation that would require all election ballots to be counted by hand instead of electronic tabulators. Similar proposals have been floated within some local governments, including about a dozen New Hampshire towns and Washoe County in the presidential battleground state of Nevada.

“It’s our responsibility, and it should be our desire, to count every vote and to imbue confidence in our citizenry that our elections are fair and free, and that their vote is being counted,” said New Hampshire state Rep. Mark Alliegro, sponsor of a hand-counting bill that is similar to ones proposed in Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, Washington and West Virginia. Although such a bill has not been introduced in Pennsylvania yet, expect that at least one will show up in the legislative hopper this session of the General Assembly. Several representatives have been looking for co-sponsors for such a bill.

The hand-counting of ballots in small municipalities such as Packer Township in Carbon County (population about 1,000) or Port Carbon in Schuylkill County (pop. 1,760) could work efficiently without undue delay, but when you talk about Allentown (pop. 121,000) or Philadelphia (pop. 1.6 million), this is a much different situation.

It’s unrealistic to think election officials can count thousands of ballots by hand and report results quickly, especially when ballots include dozens of races.

Remember last year’s partisan review of the 2 million votes cast in the 2020 presidential election in Maricopa County, Arizona? It took hundreds of people several months to complete the job, which confirmed President Joe Biden’s victory over former President Donald Trump.

By Bruce Frassinelli | tneditor@tnonline.com

The foregoing opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of the Editorial Board or Times News LLC.