Hand Counting Challenges for Washington State

Earlier this week there was a hand counting demonstration presented in Mason County.  The presentation was wonderful.  However, it is clear that in order to make it work in any Washington counties, there would need to be some major adjustments.    

Why Hand Count the Votes?

Voting machine vulnerabilities are not a well-kept secret. If bad actors can lock large companies or government agencies out of their own systems and charge a ransom, clearly a voting system can also be manipulated.  It’s undeniable that there have been instances of manipulation and fraud carried out through the machines previously and that risk exists for upcoming elections as well.   

People don’t trust the machines because they aren’t confident that the machines will not be manipulated.  Across the country there has been a push to revert to hand counting.  I have been asked several times how we can go back to hand counting here in Washington.

Washington Specific Challenges for Hand Counting

We have some additional challenges to consider when exploring hand counting options in Washington State. Washington administrative code gives some guidance on how to conduct the manual count. WAC 434-261-106 states “Procedures for manual counting of ballots shall be substantially the same as a manual recount according to chapter 434-264 WAC.”

The only mention of hand counting in that section refers to the manual recount. WAC 434-264-110 lays out the process which says we would have to count one race at a time. This could make the manual count take longer than it would if we could count the whole ballot. It requires a lot more handling of the ballots, which presents some small risks.
Our current vote by mail system presents some additional challenges.  For example, central counting, instead of counting at the precinct level is one of those dilemmas.  Counting at the precinct level spreads out the responsibility.  Central counting is a handful of people doing all the work.

Get Involved

Hand counting would require more participation from the public. Major political parties would need to help with that by recruiting election workers, or nominating individuals to count ballots.  The public would need to step forward and volunteer.  There would need to be a balance of counters from the parties.


Logistics become an issue without precinct voting locations.  Many counties would likely need to rent a space to facilitate a central hand count.  Alternatively, they could use fewer people to count, which would result in a longer delay for the results.  The number of people needed depends on how quickly you want to complete the count and how quickly you want the results.  This is what should motivate the parties to nominate who they want to count their votes.

If voters returned their ballot to a precinct counting center, instead of all ballots going to the auditor, hand counting at the precinct level would be ideal. Currently ballots get returned through the mail per RCW 29A.40.091 and ballot box pickups are required by RCW 29A.40.170 and are all returned to one location, the auditor’s office. 

Precinct Results

To conduct a hand count, the auditor would likely need to sort the ballots by precinct due to RCW 29A.60.070, which requires them to report results at the precinct level.  Sorting would also allow for a faster count because the ballot style would be consistent.

Can the Hand Count be Trusted?

Manual counts are more transparent if people are present and participate.  One person cannot be present at every voting location.  It would take a community of people and a trustworthy process to ensure all locations conduct their elections to the required standards.

If there are voting centers with an uneven number of workers from each political party, it would be difficult to hold all locations accountable. Your voting center may do things perfectly, but what about the one across town where the majority of the residents are on the other end of the political spectrum?  How will we know they also conducted an honest and accurate count?    

It would be similar to how they cheated before the machines were introduced into the equation.  Swapping one risk for another doesn’t build faith in the process.

Hand counting doesn’t offer the same records that a machine can produce.  There will be no cast vote records, no tabulator tapes, no system logs or anything to go back and see any proof of the process or follow the steps taken.  Once those ballots are sealed, we are expected to trust the reported results.

Possible Solutions

If hand counting is done on its own, one way to offer some reassurance would be to scan an image of each ballot and post the images online for all to see.  That way they can do their own count, should they feel the need.  They could also put a special mark on their own ballot that only they will recognize and find their own ballot in the images available online, should they choose to.

Many will argue that this violates the secret ballot, and perhaps it could.  If a voter wanted to put a special mark on their own ballot, that is their choice.  Nobody would be required to mark their ballot with an identifying mark that only they would recognize as their own.  People who are concerned that their ballot didn’t get counted or was manipulated would be able to verify it was cast as intended.   Just because the law states we have a right to a secret ballot doesn’t mean they can force us to have a secret ballot.

If posting the ballot images online from a hand count is out of the question, there could be a hand count with machine verification.  It would be double the work, but also provide twice as much confidence that the results are accurate.  

Another option to build confidence in hand counting would be to record all counting in each counting center. If there are questions or doubt of some kind, the video could be reviewed. If the cameras can get a shot of each ballot counted, people can watch the video and conduct an independent count. Cameras are affordable and this would still cost way less than the voting machine costs.

Truth About Election Security

Trusted and transparent elections are not going to be a simple fix. If we find a solution that works for our current problems at hand, there will be another way to subvert that in the future. Eventually someone will find a way to manipulate the results or another form of election interference will surface.

Elections require an ongoing effort by the people to ensure they are trustworthy and accurate. Those who wish to gain power through manipulation of our election process will continue to seek ways to cheat. We must keep fighting for elections we can trust and never assume someone else is taking care of that for us.

Pathway to Hand Counting in Washington

Hand counting under current state law would be challenging without amending some of the RCW’s. It could be done, but would put a lot of work on the shoulders of only a handful of election officials. Giving that much control to a small group of people is already a concern. If we were to lose the records available that are created by the machines, it would provide less transparency for the public. It would also take longer unless there was sufficient counting staff.

However, there is a need for election officials to at least understand how to conduct a manual tally of the votes.

In the event of an emergency that would disrupt the administration of our election, specifically the machines, ballots would need to be manually counted. It is the only realistic plan if the grid goes down or power is unavailable. A generator may get them by, unless somehow someone employs an EMP.  Then a generator isn’t going to do much for our elections.   

For this reason, it is not unreasonable to expect that the election officials know how to do a basic hand count of the ballots.  If each election official is trained and understands the backup plan, it should be a smooth transition in the event of an emergency.  

Washington counties should implement hand count training as part of their continuity of operations planning. This will allow people to figure out that it isn’t impossible or scary. From there we need to start working with our legislators on addressing some of the laws which create challenges for our elections to be conducted in their most basic format.

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