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Election petitions seek a return to hand counting

At a moment when public trust in elections is crucial, there are some people who want to ditch voting machines in favor of a return to hand counting ballots.

A campaign in South Dakota aims to get signed petitions in front of local government officials.

The current effort has real implications for the people who manage local elections.

McPherson County auditor Lindley Howard is familiar with unsubstantiated complaints of voter fraud. She’s been called a “traitor” on one far-right commentary website. But this kind of rhetoric isn’t limited to the internet. Howard said on occasion she’s had people watching her as a result of her job.

“One of the petition circulators took my picture as I was leaving the courthouse," Howard said. "I went to daycare after that, that same vehicle was driving by. Which, it could have been a coincidence it’s a small town – but it did give me pause.”

As a county auditor, Howard manages and ensures the quality of local elections, among other duties. Howard said when voters disparage her work, it’s disappointing.

“It’s unfortunate, that angle that basically county auditors are useful idiots or communists, blockers, and whatever else they called us on those interviews," Howard said. "I honestly don’t think that me myself are any of those things – and certainly not any other auditors in the state.”

Howard said voting machines are an important part of our election process.

Allegations of election fraud continue despite any credible evidence. However, such disinformation is available on widely circulated internet programs.

“I’ll invite those two – I’ll call them traitors – on this show if they want," said pillow salesman turned political activist and election denier Mike Lindell on a recent video.

“To me you’re a traitor if you don’t even want what the people want, and you don’t even let us get to the point and say, ‘We want paper ballots hand counted,’" Lindell said. "I want them to come on and say why you are blocking that. Why are you blocking the people?”

In February, Lindell, a longtime supporter of former President Donald Trump, talked with Jessica Pollema, an organizer for South Dakota Canvassing, for his Lindell Report program on FrankSpeech. Pollema's group is petitioning to get as many counties in the state as possible to hand count ballots.

"Circulators of this petition must collect 5% of those counties registered voters based on the last preceding general election," Pollema said. "You can find that total on the website of the Secretary of State, so Then they get all those signatures, whatever that percentage is, and bring that to the auditor, the auditor brings that to the commission, and the commissioners shall submit it to the vote of the voters within 60 days of final enactment.”

However, there are plenty of questions surrounding this petition effort. There are significant issues regarding the practicality of the hand counting process. In addition, some say there are legal problems with the petition as it’s written. Sara Frankenstein is a Rapid City-based attorney who represents Lawrence County.

“The South Dakota Canvassing website listed six items any number of which have problems in the manner in which they were written. But the third one is just very obviously problematic because it outlaws electronic voting devices which are required by both state and federal law,” Frankenstein said.

While the voting machines used during elections are electronic, they are not connected to the internet. Frankenstein said electronic voting devices help to ensure equal access to the ballot box.

“We can’t outlaw electronic voting devices – as its phrased in these petitions – because those devices are required by state and federal law to help disabled people cast paper ballots,” Frankenstein said.

That violates the Help America Vote Act. Frankenstein also said the petition documents are rife with errors.

“I think there’s a misconception that it’s electronic voting, as opposed to a manner in which a disabled person can better mark a paper ballot," Frankenstein said. "That dovetails with the misconception you see in Number 1 on these petitions. Number 1 says all elections in whatever county shall be conducted by paper ballot only. All elections in the state of South Dakota are already conducted by paper ballot only.”

This isn’t the first time the state has tangled with hand counting ballots. Last election, the Tripp County Board of Commissioners approved a hand count following security concerns in the 2020 election.

Barb Desersa, auditor for Tripp and Todd counties, explained how the hand count went in her community, South Dakota’s first in 20 years.

“Everybody went on task," Desersa said. "It did take some precincts longer than others, I think it was 5:00 or 5:30 in the morning that they finished. We’re usually out of here by 1:00, maybe 2:00 at the latest. But that night we just went home and showered and came back to work.”

After that experience, Desersa said her opinion on hand counting ballots is unchanged.

“Personally, I don’t think it’s necessary," Desersa said. "I think the confusion with the tabulating machine is they think it can remark the ballots somehow or give the wrong numbers. I also think people think the tabulator gives those totals straight to the state, and that’s not true either. We enter those by hand into the computer and into the Secretary of State website. I just think there’s a lot of misinformation being said.”

Desersa said for any voters with concerns about election security, the best approach is to volunteer as a poll worker on election night.

C.J. Keene is a Rapid City-based journalist covering the legal system, education, and culture