Election workers handle ballots as part of the recount for the 2020 presidential election in Lawrenceville, Georgia. (Megan Varner/Getty Images)
An Arkansas group with connections to former President Donald Trump is traveling the state with a pitch to county quorum courts: ditch the voting machines.
Instead, the Arkansas Voter Integrity Initiative urges counties to rely on paper ballots marked and counted by hand.
The group had existed in relative obscurity since it was formed last year by Conrad Reynolds, a retired Army colonel who twice lost in the Republican primary for Arkansas’ 2nd Congressional District seat to U.S. Rep. French Hill. But last month, it convinced the first county, Cleburne County, to switch to hand-marked and counted ballots.
Now, some of the most conservative members of the Arkansas Legislature appear to have taken notice, filing a bill to require counties that opt to hand-count ballots to pay for it themselves and first run the ballots through a tabulation device.
The Arkansas Voter Integrity Initiative is part of the movement spawned out of Trump’s efforts to cast doubts on the integrity of U.S. elections since his loss to President Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential race.
While Reynolds couldn’t be reached for comment for this story, just last week he posted photos on social media from Mar-a-Lago with Kari Lake, who has unsuccessfully challenged the results of last year’s Arizona gubernatorial election; Mike Lindell, the MyPillow CEO who has become a leader in the movement to cast doubt on election integrity; and former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
Thank you for being my guest at Mar a Lago, @KariLake to talk about election integrity and to be there to honor @realDonaldTrump. Also great to see @realMikeLindell and General Flynn. Special night tonight. Had a great conversation with President Trump and he wants the voting… https://t.co/lC3ylfHn5C pic.twitter.com/Hh82AuWHVm
— COL Conrad Reynolds (@ColonelReynolds) February 16, 2023
At the heart of Reynolds’ and AVII’s argument is that voting machines can’t be trusted. While Arkansas’ voting machines produce a paper ballot for review by the voter, the group argues that voters can’t verify that the tabulating machines will record their votes correctly because the machines use barcodes, which can’t be read by the average person.
In December, AVII sued Arkansas Secretary of State John Thurston, the state Board of Election Commissioners and voting machine manufacturer Election Systems and Software LLC. The suit asks a judge to block the state from using ES&S’s voting machines in future elections.
That litigation is ongoing.
However, Arkansas elections have repeatedly been found to be among the most secure in the U.S., and there are numerous safeguards built into the state’s pre- and post-election procedures to detect any inconsistencies or problems with machines.
Arkansas uses ES&S’ ExpressVote system across the state. The touch-screen machines mark a paper ballot based on a voter’s selections. The marked ballot is then printed with both barcodes and text of the voter’s selections for review. The vast majority of ballots are tabulated with ES&S’ DS200 scanners. Pulaski County, for instance, uses a different version of the ES&S scanner with a higher capacity to accommodate the county’s higher population. Before each election, local poll officials are required by law to ensure that each tabulators’ results match the human-readable portion of the ballots. There are also post-election audits designed to catch errors, and the paper ballots are kept in case they need to be hand counted during an audit or recount.
Voting machines in Arkansas
Arkansas uses ES&S’ ExpressVote system across the state.
The touch-screen machines mark a paper ballot based on a voter’s selections. The marked ballot is then printed with both barcodes and text of the voter’s selections for review.
The vast majority of ballots are tabulated with ES&S’ DS200 scanners. Pulaski County, for instance, uses a different version of the ES&S scanner with a higher capacity to accommodate the county’s higher population.
Before each election, local poll officials are required by law to ensure that each tabulators’ results match the human-readable portion of the ballots.
There are also post-election audits designed to catch errors, and the paper ballots are kept in case they need to be hand counted during an audit or recount.
The conservative Heritage Foundation ranks Arkansas in the top 10 on its election integrity scorecard.
Zack Smith, a Heritage legal fellow, said that Arkansas’ election procedures excel in two key areas: its voting machines are never connected to the internet and there is a paper trail that can be reviewed during an audit or recount.
Smith said that hand counts aren’t practical, particularly in urban areas.
“Counting ballots by hand is necessarily going to be more laborious and prone to human error and more difficult to do accurately and quickly,” he said.
Pamela Smith, the president and CEO of the nonpartisan election technology group Verified Voting, said there are groups and people across pushing agendas similar to Reynolds’ and AVII’s.
However, she said that the hand counting of ballots is not optimal for the initial tally of votes.
“The time and place for a hand count is a post-election audit or check to make sure the machines worked correctly or in the recount of a very close race.”
Beginning with a pilot program in 2020, the state Board of Election Commissioners began conducting post-election audits.
The board reviewed White, Pope, Lincoln, Faulkner and Madison counties, finding the election was secure. The review entailed hand counting a sampling of ballots and comparing them to the electronic count.
“Based upon the results of the 2020 Post-Election Audit, the SBEC has determined that the voting equipment used and audited in each of the five selected counties rendered a faithful and accurate count of the ballots which were submitted to the system for counting,” the executive summary reads. “Based on these findings, it is the conclusion of the SBEC that the ExpressVote system accurately tabulated the election results for the 2020 General Election in the State of Arkansas.”
Read the full 55-page report here.
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The board is in the process of auditing 15 counties from the 2022 general election, and so far, has not found significant problems.
While Smith cautioned against hand counting initial election results, she said it is preferable to use hand-marked ballots over machine-marked ballots.
She said hand-marking provides a more verifiable ballot and voters seem to pay closer attention to hand-marked selections.
Hand-marked ballots also avoid barcodes.
“You basically end up with two different records,” she said. “You have the human-readable part and the machine-readable.”
That type of ballot can be susceptible to certain types of attacks, she said. However, she noted that strong pre- and post-election checks can address those. She also said that federal law requires at least some use of voting machines to accommodate voters with disabilities.
“You can’t just get rid of all the machines,” she said.
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Senate Bill 250 by Sen. Kim Hammer (R-Benton), and several dozen co-sponsors, would make it much more difficult for counties to implement AVII’s recommendations.
- It would require paper ballots to be compatible with the state’s electronic voting equipment.
- It would require “paper-ballot” counties to shoulder the costs of printing and tabulating paper ballots.
- It would require those counties to run the ballots through an electronic vote tabulation device before beginning a hand count.
- It would require counties to complete a count within 24 hours of the polls closing.
Reynolds has been attacking the bill on social media.
“Arkansas political elitists are working against the hand marked ballot efforts,” Reynolds posted over the weekend.
A spokesman for the Arkansas secretary of state’s office didn’t respond to questions about the legislation, and the office’s director of elections, Leslie Bellamy, declined to be interviewed, citing the pending litigation with AVII.
Hammer also declined to be interviewed.
“I will not be making any comments on this bill until it is heard in committee and fully explained,” he said.
*CORRECTION: A previous version of this story inaccurately characterized Pamela Smith’s comments about pre- and post-election checks.
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