Hand counts may restore public trust in elections, senator says

Nathan Oster

Still stinging from a defeat in Park County, Sen. Dan Laursen, R-Powell, said last week that while he still prefers a hand count of votes cast in this year’s elections to electronic tabulating machines, he doesn’t feel he has the support to push for such a change in Big Horn County. At least for this election cycle.
“I was hoping someone from over there might pursue it because I’d sure help them out — I just don’t want to be the lone ranger,” he said.
In Park County, he was one of four Republicans who argued that a return to hand counts would be a step toward restoring public trust in the election process.  But the commissioners disagreed. Earlier this month, they unanimously adopted the continued use of the county’s DS200 and SD450 tabulators, which were manufactured by the Nebraska-based Elections Systems and Software, according to the Powell Tribune.  As a result, all votes in Park County will continue to be cast on paper ballots that are then scanned and counted by ES&S machines.
When reached Friday morning, Laursen said he was “not very happy” with the commissioners’ decision.
“A couple years ago, we suggested doing a hand count after the machine count, but were told by the Secretary of State (Ed Buchanan) and county attorney in Park County that it couldn’t happen, by statute,” he said. “At the time, I agreed with them on that thinking — that if they were counted by machine, they couldn’t be counted by hand. We got pushed that way by the commissioners. Looking back on it, I wish we wouldn’t have let them do that to us.”
Laursen said the level of concern over election integrity has only increased among members of his group.
“I don’t know if machines and tabulating is bringing results that are accurate because we can’t get inside and look at them,” he said. “We don’t know who programmed them. Are they connected to the internet?  Our county says no.  Nationwide, there are no devices that will determine if they are.
“But you worry, when the data is collected and put into the computer in the clerk’s office, is it corrupted?  You never know.”
Laursen also uses state statutes to make his case. The way he interprets key language, county commissions are not required to use electronic tabulating machines.  “My county commissioners over here don’t believe that,” he said. “I’ve given them the statutes.  I don’t know why they can’t read.  They clearly state that they may use machines that have been approved by the state.  It does not say shall.  If it said shall, we’d be stuck with machines. But it doesn’t.  It says may.  
“And throughout the statutes on elections, there is mention of counting boards.  They tell you how many members are needed— for example, if there are 300 votes in a precinct, a county would need three counters.  They wouldn’t have left all that in there if they didn’t still want to allow that, but I don’t think that’s the way my county attorney is reading that.”
Laursen said he was part of a group that recently tested the length of time that would be required if the county opted to go with a hand count.  A couple hundred high school students participated by casting ballots.  Three people were then tasked with counting them, he said, settling on three because it would closely approximate how such a system would work at the county level, with each ballot passing in front of a Democrat, a Republican and an election observer.
“The second time we did it, we got it down to 32 seconds per ballot,” he said.  “We were even thinking that if we did this, we could have a camera in the room so people could watch the counting taking place.”
Laursen said he isn’t concerned about the additional expense to the county that would result from the hand counts.  “It might cost a little more, but my belief is, it doesn’t matter what it costs,” he said.
“I think our clerk’s office does a real great job. I just don’t trust the machines, and people hearing that (machines will be used to tabulate votes) may influence whether they even vote.  You may hear the opposite -- that people are more concerned about a hand count being accurate.   But I trust humans and my neighbors more than I trust machines.”
Laursen added that in his own informal polling of people he encounters in coffee shops, GOP and community events, 80% prefer hand counts over machines.
Clerk’s views
Last month, the County Clerks Association of Wyoming submitted a six-page memo to Secretary of State Chuck Gray outlining its concerns the “People’s initiative to restore hand tabulation of all elections in Wyoming.”
Big Horn County Clerk Lori Smallwood referenced that memo in response to specific issues that came up recently in Park County.  
To the question of whether people should trust the tabulating machines, she said they are very black and white.  “If the mark (vote) is not in the oval area as it should be, the vote isn’t counted,” she said. “There is nothing subjective about it.  A mark in the oval or not in the oval is read the same by the machine every time.  If a person is looking and the X is to the right of the oval, they may count it or to the left they may not, totally up to however that board decides to interpret the mark.   The machine doesn’t choose it only reads one way.   
“Eliminating the machine also doesn’t allow voters the advantage of knowing that they over- or under-voted for a race. (This happens often in races where you vote for two or more candidates.)  So any inadvertent error a voter made cannot be corrected before the ballot is cast.”
Smallwood was adamant that the voting machines used in Big Horn County, which are DS200s, are not connected to the internet. The computer used to total the results from each poll and produce reports is not hooked to the internet nor the county network.  It is a completely hardened and standalone machine and printer.
Nor can they be controlled from off the premises, as they locked with numbered and recorded seals and have password protections.  “The machines also have audit reports that show anytime the machine was turned on, off, opened and all sorts of other data on operation of the machine so we could tell if the machine had been tampered with at all,” said Smallwood.
“There is no less than an entire weeks’ worth of testing that goes into every election by me and my staff ahead of the public testing.  Results are verified repeatedly to ensure everything is tabulating correctly.  We use test ballots that are produced by software as well as test ballots that we mark ourselves to ensure accurate results.”
Smallwood also addressed question of the added expense of a shift to hand count of all ballots. “I believe the estimate is it takes a minimum of about three hours to hand tabulate one race across in an election that has about 5,000 ballots cast,” she said. “Our ballots usually have a minimum of 20 races and best practices for hand counting indicate that ballots must be tabulated for one race at a time.  
“So it would be probably at least a week and more likely longer of counting boards working very long hours before election results would be available.  The biggest issue is poll workers already work at least 14 hours on election day so to hand count after the polls close is really not feasible.   
“Having adequate staff to man hand counting boards would also be an issue due to low numbers of folks who are registered voters of a party besides Republican in our county.  Election workers are currently paid $12 per hour. I haven’t done the math but the costs would increase exponentially if we had to staff for hand counts.”
Both sides
When it comes to elections, Janice Wantulok of Cowley has ties to both worlds — the political, as a longtime member of the Big Horn County Republican Central Committee, and the clerk’s office, with nearly two decades of experience as an election worker.
She said in an interview Monday that she does not support the push to count votes by hand, which has left her at odds with other members of the county’s central committee.
“I think it’s a dumb proposal,” she said. “You have enough trouble getting people to be election judges — you would need even more of them if you have to count votes by hand.
“Besides, on election day, we get there by 5:30 and stay until we finish, which is usually around 8 or 9.  By the end of the day, your mind is saying, ‘I want to go home.’ At that point, I could see more mistakes being made if we had to count votes.”
Wantulok said she’s one of five people who oversee the Cowley precinct.  She’s usually with a second person at the registration table. Two others are responsible for the poll books.  The fifth person is stationed near the voting machine, making sure ballots get fed through it correctly.
“I feel our elections (in Wyoming) are very secure,” she said. “So many precautions have been put in. We sign when we get the equipment.  More than one person counts the ballots before election day.  There is no double voting.”
She said her level of confidence isn’t nearly as high when it comes to other states and how they count votes, particularly back east where dropboxes are more common.
“I heard there was voter fraud in Wyoming and asked the Secretary of State’s office about it,” Wantulok continued. “They said when they purge voter files, they take people off who didn’t vote or died.  I don’t know how that could be considered voter fraud.
“And I’ve had people tell me the last election was rigged because their candidate didn’t win — but in my eyes, that doesn’t mean the election was rigged.  It just means more people voted for a different candidate.”
Wantulok said the current system already has safeguards built in, noting that if a race is very close or there are discrepancies in the numbers spit out by the voting machine, a hand count of the ballots can be performed.