‘Mischief and issues’: rightwing activists ramp up drive to hand-count ballots

‘Mischief and issues’: rightwing activists ramp up drive to hand-count ballots

This text was revealed in partnership with Votebeat, a non-profit information group reporting on voting entry and election administration throughout the US.

On the native low cost cinema in Tempe, Arizona, this winter, a crowd of about 100 folks took their seats for one thing completely different from the standard Sunday matinee.

The person standing in entrance of the massive display, Mark Cook dinner, packed up his life months in the past to drive round in an RV for a mission he mentioned he was referred to as to by God. Their elections had been stolen from them, he instructed the gang, and it was time to take them again. He dubbed his cross-country enterprise the “hand depend roadshow”.

“Elections belong to us,” he mentioned, emphatically.

“Say it!” a lady within the entrance of the theater yelled out.

The last word resolution he provided the gang on this Phoenix suburb: eliminating mail-in voting, counting all ballots solid at polling locations on the evening of the election and, most significantly, doing the counting by hand.

Cook dinner is one in every of a number of quasi-disciples of Mike Lindell and different big-name election influencers who’ve been spreading the hand-count gospel across the nation since 2020, when Donald Trump started claiming with out proof that poll tabulating machines had been rigged towards him.

The push to hand-count ballots is ramping up, albeit with spotty success, because the 2024 election nears, in keeping with a evaluate by the Guardian and Votebeat. If extra localities determine to attempt hand-counting within the November election, outcomes might be inaccurate, untrustworthy or delayed, fostering extra mistrust in elections. In locations that choose to not hand-count, supporters of the observe may use this selection as a purpose to query or refuse to log off on certification.

Both approach, it raises the danger of throwing the 2024 election into chaos.

“It simply offers further grounds for calling into query the outcomes of elections when there aren’t any legitimate grounds,” mentioned Heather Sawyer, govt director at American Oversight. “There’s no good purpose to do it. And there’s a number of room for mischief and issues.”

The push hasn’t gained a lot floor within the massive swing counties the place Trump claimed votes had been stolen from him. It’s been simpler in small or rural counties that voted closely for Trump, the place conservative activists have lined up at public conferences to repeat the conspiracies of Cook dinner, Lindell and others. There – in Missouri, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Texas and Wisconsin – native officers voted to present hand-counting ballots a attempt in both their midterm or presidential major elections.

These makes an attempt have confirmed what election consultants have lengthy understood: ditching machines and completely hand-counting ballots is time-consuming, costly and extra vulnerable to human error. It’s additionally pointless. Election officers routinely confirm that machines are counting votes correctly by hand-counting the outcomes on a portion of ballots after every election.

Most not too long ago, in Gillespie county, Texas, errors had been found in practically all precincts after the county tried to hand-count its Republican presidential major election.

However, Gillespie county nonetheless plans to hand-count its native run-off election in Could. In South Dakota, there are efforts to get hand-counting by means of native initiatives. And in New Hampshire, one city voted to depend ballots by hand after a concerted push by native activists.

This seemingly grassroots effort has typically been backed by outdoors funding and guarantees of monetary assist, some from Lindell and others from unknown sources, in keeping with public data and statements reviewed by The Guardian and Votebeat.

Earlier than a California county voted to eliminate its tabulation machines, Lindell wrote to a supervisor that in the event that they “have any pushback, together with lawsuits towards you or your county, I’ll present the entire assets needed (together with each monetary and authorized) for this battle”, in keeping with paperwork obtained by American Oversight, a watchdog group that has tracked the hand-count motion throughout the nation, and shared with The Guardian and Votebeat.

Lindell mentioned he has contributed cash to efforts in South Dakota and New Hampshire, however he wasn’t positive how a lot or how precisely the funds had been used. He additionally options hand-count activists on his on-line video packages and helps them discover donations that approach. “Any approach I can to get the phrase out,” he mentioned.

Cash wouldn’t come from him personally, however from an affiliated fundraising outfit, the Lindell Offense Fund, he mentioned. His private monetary points, stemming from lawsuits he faces, are well-documented: he couldn’t pay his attorneys in defamation circumstances introduced by voting-machine corporations.

“I don’t have cash to stay in there myself. I’m reaching out to the general public. … I’m not a grifter. I’d be the worst grifter that ever lived,” he mentioned.

In Arizona, the push to hand-count ballots has mysterious benefactors, with an unknown supply providing cash for the authorized protection of county supervisors who tackle the battle to hand-count ballots, defying state legislation. Most not too long ago, an elected official in rural Mohave county sued the lawyer normal, an effort to acquire a court docket ruling saying that hand-counting ballots is authorized. The supervisor, Ron Gould, mentioned in an interview he doesn’t “have permission” to reveal who’s paying his authorized prices – however thus far, it isn’t him.

How the concept has unfold

Inside Pollack Cinemas in Tempe, roadshow attendees munched on popcorn and sipped sodas as Cook dinner instructed them a couple of story he heard from a Texas ballot employee. The ballot employee instructed him they’d watched as a poll counter on a tabulation machine ticked up one after the other, however nobody was inserting ballots on the time.

Many within the crowd gasped. “Oh, my gosh,” one mentioned.

This declare may have been referencing a viral video that confirmed an digital pollbook in Dallas county including voters after polls closed, which county officers have defined was merely a delay within the system.

Like many who promote hand-counting ballots, Cook dinner subscribes to wide-ranging conspiracy theories about voting, and he instructed the gang all about them. Their election officers in Maricopa county, he instructed them with out providing proof, had brought on issues throughout the midterm election so they may “pepper in ballots”. Election officers throughout the nation used messy voter rolls to “inject” “phantom” voters, he mentioned, once more with out proof. And Covid-19 was born as a strategy to improve vote-by-mail throughout the nation, he mentioned falsely, simply so the 2020 election might be stolen from Donald Trump.

The options he provided are acquainted speaking factors among the many Republican leaders who propagate hand-counting ballots. They’d prohibit voting entry, akin to ending all early and mail-in voting, and purging voter rolls.

Cook dinner credit Lindell with influencing his beliefs. He attended Lindell’s notorious “cyber symposium” in 2021, the place Lindell mentioned the “seeds had been planted” for folks to return to their states to advocate towards machines.

With Lindell’s help and coordination, the hand-count pushes have turn out to be extra systematic.

He tried to rally the troops at a summit in Missouri final August, the place he detailed “the plan”, his step-by-step information for grassroots teams and activists to persuade their native elected officers to ditch machines. He advises them to speak about machine vulnerabilities, voter roll points, web connections and different frequent speaking factors of the far-right election activist motion – then “name for the implementation of hand counts” and put together to reply to objections.

Reason behind America, one in every of a number of organizations affiliated with Lindell, says it has “over 300,000 volunteers on the bottom going county by county to alter legal guidelines, take away machines, train hand depend voting and extra”. Lindell mentioned he hosts a weekly name with activists throughout the nation to speak in regards to the plan.

Lindell held the 2021 cyber symposium in South Dakota, the place activists at the moment are engaged on gathering petition signatures to place the concept of eliminating voting machines earlier than voters in two dozen counties. Proponents have thus far satisfied two counties (Fall River and Gregory) to undertake full hand-counts.

Some counties have objected to the petitions, saying the change may violate state and federal legislation.

“If the voters vote for this ordinance, we may have lawsuits,” the McPherson county auditor, Lindley Howard, instructed South Dakota Information Watch. “If we illegally deny the petition, then the petitioners will file a lawsuit. I really feel like counties had been left swimming in an ocean and not using a lifejacket.”

In New Hampshire, a gaggle used many cities’ “warrant articles” course of to attempt to eliminate machines, submitting petitions in practically two dozen cities to name for a vote on machine tabulation. Activists within the state tried an identical push in 2022, however didn’t get a lot traction.

Lindell and New Hampshire organizers hoped for a landslide of cities shifting at hand counts.

“Think about the impression for the remainder of the state … Think about the impression on the remainder of our nation! God keen, this might be our technology’s ‘shot heard all over the world,’” a crowdfunding website for the New Hampshire push says. The crowdfunding web page notes that Lindell funded a “digital cell truck” to promote for the marketing campaign for six days at $20,000.

However thus far, only one city, Danville, accepted the petition to hand-count ballots in presidential elections. The city’s lawyer instructed the Related Press he doesn’t consider the change will stand as a result of it might violate state legislation.

New Hampshire organizers didn’t reply to a request for remark.

Lindell has featured each the South Dakota and New Hampshire efforts on his on-line present.

‘No upside’ to hand-counting

There’s a facet profit to the hand-count fervor for the broader rightwing election motion: it serves to maintain native activists engaged within the lead-up to the 2024 election, notes Emma Steiner, who has adopted the hand-count push for Frequent Trigger.

“It’s mainly an goal that they will set up round, that they will foyer their native legislators and officers about, and one thing that retains them motivated and their eye on the ball in order that they are going to be accessible within the sport for November,” Steiner mentioned.

In Arizona, far-right lawmakers Sonny Borrelli and Wendy Rogers have traveled the state to unfold the phrase about hand counts. The anti-machine sentiment continues to be working sturdy within the swing state, which may determine the 2024 election.

Earlier than Borrelli and Rogers’ tour, Cochise county notably tried to maneuver to a full hand depend, regardless of an opinion from the state lawyer normal on the time that the transfer could be unlawful. An unnamed supply paid $10,000 for a authorized retainer for 2 Republican supervisors who had voted for the hand depend to occur, in keeping with their statements at public conferences.

These two supervisors, Tom Crosby and Peggy Judd, then later refused to certify the election, which required court docket intervention. Crosby and Judd had been not too long ago charged by the state for his or her function in delaying certification.

Judd mentioned in an interview she solely needed to hand-count ballots to appease the crowds that had been exhibiting as much as board conferences.

“It was simply to indicate them we have now good machines, we have now elections director, we have now system right here, you don’t must be apprehensive about Cochise county,” she mentioned.

Judd mentioned she didn’t know who paid the $10,000 authorized retainer for the associated case.

When requested whether or not he paid the Cochise retainer, Lindell mentioned: “I don’t consider so.”

In Cochise and elsewhere, the hand-count push has pushed out some elections officers, who’ve discovered themselves at odds with their county boards over the observe. Cochise’s seasoned elections director Lisa Marra left her job after suing the county for harassment. She ultimately obtained a $130,000 settlement.

When Mohave county, a closely Republican a part of the state, was contemplating a full hand depend of ballots solid in 2024 elections, Borrelli instructed the native supervisors that he had guarantees from unnamed hand-count supporters that they’d financially assist the county if there was any authorized pushback.

The Democratic lawyer normal, Kris Mayes, despatched a letter warning the supervisors they might be prosecuted for hand-counting all ballots, and the supervisors voted to not transfer ahead. That spurred supervisor Ron Gould’s lawsuit towards Mayes, asking the court docket to rule on whether or not hand-counting is authorized within the state. Within the go well with, Gould says that he confronted “doubtlessly dropping his liberty and being jailed as a legal, if Defendant Mayes is right, for voting in keeping with his conscience”.

Gould mentioned in an interview that he sued in order that the state would “cease threatening him”. He believes hand-counting ballots is authorized and would enhance voter confidence.

Supervisor Buster Johnson solid a “no” vote to cease the swap to hand-counting. Borrelli is now difficult Johnson for his seat on the board within the July major election, which may change the make-up of the board. Borrelli mentioned in a textual content message that his run for the seat has “nothing to do with elections”.

In a cellphone interview, Johnson mentioned he voted no on hand-counting as a result of, together with the authorized causes, it will be costly and error-prone, and it makes an attempt to repair a non-existent drawback.

“There isn’t any upside to it,” he mentioned.

Borrelli didn’t reply to a query asking who the unnamed supporter was that might have helped pay for authorized prices in Mohave county. Judd mentioned that Borrelli has not provided to pay authorized prices for her pending legal case.

Past Arizona, locations that not too long ago tried hand-counting have came upon the laborious approach about its challenges.

Osage county, a small Missouri county outdoors Jefferson Metropolis, hand-counted an area election in April 2023 as a check of the observe, spurred by activists who satisfied the county clerk to attempt it. Lindell and different activists now cite the Osage depend as one in every of their successes.

However, county clerk Nicci Kammerich wrote in an area newspaper, the method took longer and price extra in the long run, even with a gaggle of principally volunteers who helped hand-count.

Kammerich despatched the article to The Guardian after an interview request, saying the hand-count subject has consumed her workplace: “I would not have the time to speak. I get calls and e mail requests on the every day about this hand depend and it has been actually interfering with my daily duties.”

After the hand-count, Kammerich heard from election judges who mentioned they wouldn’t work once more in the event that they needed to hand-count.

“After contemplating all components of this election and evaluating it to different elections which might be comparable, I concern that if we had been to proceed hand counting it will value us extra in time, cash, dropping volunteers and accuracy of votes,” Kammerich wrote, including that her workplace intends to return to tabulation machines for future elections.

How we depend ballots within the US

Many of the US votes on paper ballots, which then are fed into machines that tabulate the outcomes. Some locations use contact screens, the place folks vote by choosing choices on a display after which solid into machines printed receipts of their votes. Machine-tabulated outcomes are then verified with a hand depend of a small proportion of ballots, with solely tight races receiving a full hand recount. Some jurisdictions, sometimes very small, nonetheless hand-count paper ballots, although these situations are uncommon.

The widespread use of machines is comparatively current: the Assist America Vote Act, handed in 2002, allowed many smaller areas to afford tabulation machines, mentioned Charles Stewart III, a political science professor on the Massachusetts Institute of Expertise. A number of the proponents of hand-counting might keep in mind when their native elections had been counted by hand.

Proponents of the observe usually level to different international locations, like France, the place hand-counting paper ballots is the norm. However native ballots within the US are sometimes for much longer and extra advanced than these in European international locations: People vote on way more workplaces, and elections are steadily consolidated, so a voter will weigh in on federal, state and native elected officers and poll questions on the identical time. A few of these international locations don’t use mail-in voting, a extra widespread voting methodology within the US, and they’re smaller than the US.

“A voter in San Francisco within the presidential election goes to vote on extra issues in that one election than a citizen of Nice Britain will vote on in a lifetime,” Stewart mentioned.

Shifting at hand counts brings not solely monetary and accuracy questions, but additionally logistical ones: it takes way more folks and area than machine counting. In some counties that mentioned the concept of hand counts, discovering a spot to accommodate an enormous operation to depend ballots offered obstacles.

Cook dinner shrugs off these factors. If we discovered a strategy to do it in years previous, he mentioned, we will do it now.

Lindell’s response to the pushback from elections officers: “They’re all improper. They’re all improper. … These election officers, they don’t know what they’re speaking about. They completely don’t. They’re simply placing it on the market and also you media folks put it on the market as gospel. It’s not true.”

Proponents of hand-counting say it’s one strategy to restore religion in elections, particularly amongst those that don’t belief the outcomes. However every time folks declare an election reform will restore confidence within the course of, the proof sometimes reveals it doesn’t, Stewart, of MIT, mentioned.

“I don’t see any proof that one thing like this might be the silver bullet that might restore confidence among the many mass public,” Stewart mentioned.

Votebeat reporter Natalia Contreras contributed to this report

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