Growing suspicion about the security of voting systems has kindled a back-to-the future moment among conservatives in some parts of the U.S.
Republican lawmakers in at least six states have introduced legislation that would require all election ballots to be counted by hand instead of electronic tabulators. Similar proposals have been floated within some local governments, including about a dozen New Hampshire towns and Washoe County in the presidential battleground state of Nevada.
The push for hand-counting ballots comes amid mistrust of elections among many Republicans who believe the false narrative that widespread fraud cost former President Donald Trump reelection in the 2020 presidential contest. Despite no evidence of widespread fraud or major irregularities, conspiracy theories have proliferated among his allies that voting systems were somehow manipulated to favor Democrat Joe Biden. That has prompted calls to ban electronic tabulators used to scan ballots, record votes and compile race tallies.
"It's our responsibility, and it should be our desire, to count every vote and to imbue confidence in our citizenry that our elections are fair and free, and that their vote is being counted," said New Hampshire state Rep. Mark Alliegro, sponsor of a hand-counting bill that is similar to ones proposed in Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, Washington and West Virginia.
Alliegro said he was motivated by his analysis of recounts in nearly 50 New Hampshire state legislative races, not by the 2020 presidential election.
But some of the bill's supporters reference the 2020 election to explain why they feel his hand-count legislation is needed. They cite a belief that Trump actually won a landslide victory and that cheating is the only way to explain how New Hampshire voters elected a Republican governor and GOP majorities in the Legislature, but then backed Democrats for federal office.
Critics of the proposals to ditch electronic ballot tabulators and return to hand-counting are blunt about what they see as the motivation.
"It's coming from conspiracy theories and lies," said Sylvia Albert, director of voting and elections for Common Cause, a nonpartisan group that advocates for expanded voter access. "It's attempting to lower people's confidence in elections."
Albert and others said it's unrealistic to think election officials can count millions of ballots by hand and report results quickly, given that ballots often include dozens of races. The partisan review last summer of the 2 million ballots cast in Maricopa County, Arizona, which included a hand count, took several months and hundreds of people to complete.
"If you have a jurisdiction with 500 voters, you might be OK. But if you have a jurisdiction with thousands of voters, tens of thousands of voters, hundreds of thousands of voters, it's just not going to work," said Jennifer Morrell, a former elections clerk in Colorado and Utah who now advises state and local election officials.
Even in New Hampshire's small towns, hand-counting is a complicated, lengthy process when a typical ballot might include 50 questions, said Milford Town Clerk Joan Dargie, who spoke against the proposed legislation on behalf of the New Hampshire City and Town Clerks Association. She estimates her town would have to increase its number of election workers from 200 to 350, and said many of her fellow clerks have said they will quit if they have to tabulate every ballot by hand.
"People who are asking to get rid of machines obviously haven't worked in an election," she said.
As one example, Cobb County, Georgia, performed a hand tally ordered by the state after the 2020 election. It took hundreds of people five days to count just the votes for president on roughly 397,000 ballots, said Janine Eveler, elections director for the county in metro Atlanta. She estimates it would have taken 100 days to count every race on each ballot using the same procedures.
Counting by machine isn't just faster. Multiple studies have shown it's also more accurate, said Charles Stewart, professor of political science at The Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The first research on the topic was done almost two decades ago comparing recounts of New Hampshire races that were originally tabulated by hand to those tabulated by machines. In that study and subsequent research, the machines won, he said.
"Counting votes is very tedious. Human beings are bad doing tedious things, and computers are very good at doing tedious things," Stewart said.
Most states also conduct post-election audits that are designed to identify any irregularities with ballot scanning and counting. But with many Republicans believing Biden was not legitimately elected, election machines have become a popular target.
In Nevada, a Republican county commissioner is pushing a proposal that would require hand-counting of all ballots, along with a return to primarily in-person voting and beefing up uniformed security at polling places.
"I'm 82 years old and I've been through a lot of elections," said Washoe County Commissioner Jeanne Herman. "I know that something is not right."
The proposal has drawn opposition from other commissioners, the biggest labor union in the state and a rare front-page editorial in the largest newspaper in northern Nevada, which said the measure could cost taxpayers "millions of dollars to chase down Facebook rumors of illusory election fraud."
In West Virginia, a bill to repeal the state law governing tabulation machines died in committee earlier this month. In Missouri, lawmakers have not yet acted on a proposal that would ban electronic voting machines and tabulation equipment and require hand-counting to be livestreamed and recorded.
The bill's sponsor, Republican state Rep. Mitch Boggs Jr., said he has no proof elections have been manipulated but is responding to constituent concerns.
"You file what the constituents are asking for," Boggs said. "But at the end of the day, what they're really wanting is just the transparency. They want to know that our elections are secure."
Republican state Rep. Petty McGaugh said the legislation would delay election results and likely undermine their accuracy. When she became clerk of rural Carroll County in 1995, election staff were still hand-counting ballots by marking tallies in blocks of five on paper. She noticed multiple errors and eventually switched the county to an electronic tabulation system.
"I don't really think that in this day and age we need to go back to hand-counting where it's so susceptible to human error," she said. "We've got to start trusting electronics and computers."
In New Hampshire, that message seems to have gotten through. This past week, a state House committee unanimously recommended killing the hand-counting legislation and voters in nine towns where the question was on the ballot in local elections rejected it.
Additional reporting by the Associated Press.