February 22, 2024

Searcy County Arkansas switches to hand-marked paper ballots

Almost all Arkansas counties have been using ballot-marking devices (BMDs) in their elections. Searcy County has just chosen to switch to hand-marked (fill-in-the-oval) paper ballots, which will be counted by machine (for an unofficial, immediate count) and then counted by hand (for an official, certified count). Hand counting all the ballots might be impractical in larger jurisdictions, but Searcy County has a population of 7828, with 5220 registered voters and 4019 votes cast in the 2020 presidential election, so this machine-count plus hand-count system should work well.

In most other Arkansas counties (and in a few other states), the voter indicates choices on a touchscreen (the BMD), then the machine prints out a ballot card with bar codes (which will be counted by an optical scanner) in addition to human-readable text (which will not be counted). The ballot card records the machine’s intent. If the BMDs are hacked (if fraudulent software is installed), the ballot cards might not record the voter’s intent. If there’s a recount, Arkansas practice is to recount using bar-code scanners, not human eyes. But even if a recount or audit were done of the human-readable selections printed on the ballot cards, these are also machine’s intent, since most voters don’t carefully check what’s printed on the cards.

More trustworthy elections use optical-scan paper ballots, marked by the voter with a pen, counted by an optical-scan voting machine, then audited or recounted by hand. In August 2023 the election commissioners of the Searcy County Quorum Court voted 6-2 to adopt such a system, with a hand count, after the optical-scanner count and before certification of results. A final ordinance must pass in September for this system to go into effect.

Two commissioners of the Searcy County Quorum Court
Two election commissioners, wearing blue and red respectively, explained to THV11 News that this was a bipartisan decision, made after months of research.

A dual system like this should be quite trustworthy. Optical-scan voting machines are quite accurate (if they haven’t been hacked or misconfigured or clogged with dust); having a machine count can serve as a check on mistakes in the hand count, and vice versa. This process allows the voters (or their representatives on the counting teams) to see for themselves that election outcomes represent the will of the people.

Searcy County has adopted gold-standard methods for vote counting. A consensus of election experts recommends, (1) hand-marked fill-in-the-bubble paper ballots (check!), (2) optical scan machine count (check!), (3) Risk-Limiting Audit (RLA) before certification of election results (check!). An RLA is any method that can make a certain kind of statistical guarantee, without having to trust software or computers, that incorrect election outcomes will not be certified. Searcy County has chosen the simplest such method: a full hand count. There are other methods that might be more efficient, using a random sample based on sound statistical principles, and the county might look into such methods in the future.

Comments

  1. Does Searcy County have precincts? Granted, Searcy has slightly over 2X the population of two average size precincts (3000 ppl / PCT nationwide). 3000 ppl precincts standardize the size of the election day materials, personnel, facility, and time required to get counting completed. Nationwide, we’d have a good estimate when results would be expected. In turn, if results are delayed, we’d know where extra attention would be required.

  2. Lori Gallagher says

    Bravo Arkansas!! Thank you to all the experts for the hard work. Democrats don’t be bitter you’ve been beating head against a rock for 10 years, help has arrived and Republicans finally see the light on handmarked paper ballots! Maybe the best thing to happen in the last 10 years, lol.

  3. Dennis Frank says

    An ordinance is needed to approve moving to paper ballots or any other local legislative act. A resolution is just a statement that the QC supports the move to paper ballots. Searcy County QC voted to approve a resolution not an ordinance. You are actually spreading misinformation at this point.

    • You’re inaccurate. In Arkansas election law 7-5-301, it says the quorum court shall pass a resolution determining which method of voting the county shall use.

    • See Arkansas Law 7-5-301 (c) for clarification…A simple Resolution by the QC is law.

  4. wrongheifer says

    BRAVO for people that still know how to think and how to count!!!

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