Op Ed 515

Election Judge: Handling Hand Count Option For Montana Voters’ Ballots

This is my take on a possible way to deal with one aspect of Election Fraud. It is intended to get a conversation started about how to create a useful and efficient process for hand counting ballots that does not wear us Election Judges out to the point where we do not feel up to doing our duty in the future.

While there are multiple processes by which the TGRUBs (Toddlers in GRownUp Bodies) cheat in elections, one is to use machines to count ballots, with the excuse that they are faster and more accurate. This hides the fact that the machines can be programmed in multiple ways to create the results desired by the TGRUBs.

One solution suggested (and legal in Montana, per the Secretary of State) is to request that one’s ballot be hand counted. However, this has created its own rat’s nest of problems owing to the fact that no one has clearly thought out HOW this is to be handled by the Election Judges in each precinct.

Polling Place Quick Reference Guide for Election Judges. Montana Secretary of State. Revised 03/04/2022.

As one of those election judges (ballot provider), I observed the in-person voting process from beginning to end in the recent election.

Secrecy sleeves (basically large manila-type folders, NOT envelopes) were used to hide the voted ballots when they were at risk for being seen, and the ballots were then literally shaken into the ballot box. The voted ballots, minus their stubs, are completely uncovered in the ballot box. There is no way to determine which ballots are supposed to be hand counted.

According to the clarification email we received in Gallatin County, a voter requesting hand counting for their ballot would have to fold their ballot in such a way as to fit into a secrecy envelope like those in an absentee ballot package, but with the stub sticking out so the receiving judge could tear it off. The elector would then seal the envelope and write on it “Hand Count,” at which point it would go into the ballot box as well, to be dealt with separately as part of the reconciliation process.

This is not an efficient means of dealing with ballots to be hand counted. Here is a possible (strictly temporary) solution for consideration:

All who want their ballots hand-counted in the general election could sign up to receive an absentee ballot, as we have, effectively, no-excuse absentee ballot request (meaning anyone can request an absentee ballot for any reason). This has to be done at the Elections Office so they can verify your identity and address, and put your signature in their database.

Once you get your ballot package prior to the general election, hold onto it. The day of the election (or as close to the election as possible), vote your ballot, seal it in the secrecy and affirmation envelopes, sign your name with the same signature you provided when requesting to go absentee, and take it to the polling place or county courthouse.

In Montana, the absentee drop boxes are always manned by at least two greeters (sworn election officials like the Election Judges). They will verify that you have signed the affirmation envelope (or you could sign it in their presence if you prefer). Tell them you want your ballot hand counted. Ideally, they will have a large rubber stamp that says “Hand Count,” along with a stamp pad, so they can stamp the affirmation envelope on the signature side (I ended up using a Sharpie handed to me by the Clerk & Recorder; others have received a sticker saying “Hand Count”).

At that point, you place the envelope in the drop box.

This solution will take a tremendous burden off the Election Judges working In-Person voting. While efforts are made to split the shifts so no one has to work a 14+ hour day, there may not be enough Election Judges available to handle all the positions (5 per precinct, of which there appear to be 4 per state house district). I worked that 14+ hour day. I do not regret it, but since most of us were new, both opening and closing procedures, which focus heavily on security, chain of custody, and accurate counts of valid, provisional, and spoiled ballots, took a significant amount of time.

However, this is only the first part of the problem—ensuring your ballots will be hand-counted.

The hand count process itself is NOT as simple as you might think, given the necessity for maintaining security, chain of custody, and accurate counts of valid, provisional, and spoiled ballots—followed by the necessity for an accurate count of votes for each race.

Technically, the machines are generally faster and more accurate when it comes to counting large numbers of ballots. What we do not like about them is how easily they can be manipulated without anyone knowing about it. After all, the first thing I learned over 40 years ago when I went back to school to learn how to fix computers was “To Err is Human, but to REALLY Screw Things Up Takes a Computer.” And all the counting equipment is run by computer chips inside each unit. Add the ability to connect to the internet via both wired and wi-fi connections built into the equipment and you are just asking for trouble.

Based on what I was able to observe of the counting process after the polls closed in 2020 (I logged in via Zoom), the process up to feeding the ballots into the scanners goes more or less as follows (some of this is, unfortunately, guesswork):

  1. Absentee ballots in affirmation envelopes (still sealed) have their signatures verified. I believe they are run through a scanner connected to the county election department’s database of recorded signatures. They may be separated by precinct before this happens, but certainly will be afterward.
  2. Ballots, separated by precinct, are removed from the affirmation envelopes and placed in bags clearly labeled with their precinct number.
  3. Each bag is handled using strict chain of custody processes (seals with numbers which are recorded and signed off on by at least three Election Judges). I imagine all the absentee ballots with “Hand Count” stamped on them would be in their own bags until time to count them—and the bags would be labeled “Hand Count” as well.

    Let’s follow one precinct as an example.
  4. A minimum of two Election Judges, one from each major party (but preferably four, two from each party) would be assigned to count the ballots in the Hand Count bag for that precinct. The seal on the bag would be removed after recording its number on the seal tally sheet, and it would be taped to the sheet, just like we did with all the seals on the ballot box for in-person voting.
  5. The ballots (which have no stubs because they are absentee ballots) are counted to ensure the number coming out of the bag matches the number of ballots that went into the bag (that info is on a reconciliation sheet from the folks handling the signature verification and separation of the hand count absentee ballots by precinct). At this point, all the ballots are removed from their secrecy envelopes. They do have numbers on the back that theoretically tie back to the precinct poll books used by those back in step 1 or 2 (or prior to mailing the ballots), so they could be sorted in order (though doubtless there will be missing numbers represented ballots either not returned or not set aside for hand counting).
  6. An Election Judge, using an unmarked ballot for tallying the marked ballots, and with a second judge of a different party observing, would take a marked ballot and put a hash mark on the tally ballot next to each voted candidate. By the end of the first pass, a given candidate should have hash marks by fives (like we all learned in grade school). The Election Judge (or judges, if two are counting at a time on separate tally sheets), initials the tally for each candidate when all the ballots have been counted.
  7. A different Election Judge (of the other party) then runs the second pass (goes through all the races on all the ballots and marks the tally sheet under the hashes made by the first judge), then initials the tally.
  8. The tallies by the two judges (who are always under observation) should match. If they do not, there’s a problem. Given that we have members of two different parties (at least), I expect every effort to be made to avoid this problem or to resolve it if it does come up.
  9. Assuming the reconciliation of the tallies is correct, the totals would be added to those of the other precincts on either a white board showing all the candidates or a spreadsheet on a PC running Linux and NOT connected to a wireless network. (This can be checked and recorded at intervals as part of the reconciliation process and security process.)
  10. The voted ballots and tally sheets would be sealed into the bags the ballots came from and the numbers of the seals recorded on the tally sheet. The completed bags would then be put into secure storage and kept separate from the unprocessed votes, pretty much as is done now.

If we assume an average of 100 hand counted absentee ballots per precinct and four judges, two doing the first run through (each counting half the ballots), and the other two doing the second run through, counting a precinct and resolving problems should not take more than an hour. Each set of judges could probably handle three or four precincts in a four hour period.

Personally, I think all the ballots, once delivered to the courthouse, should be locked up overnight and not counted until the next day, so as to give the poor election judges time to recuperate from 14 hours of bad chairs and concrete floors, to say nothing of dealing with voters who cannot remember simple instructions, and ballots that do not want to be shaken into the ballot box out of the secrecy folder. 12 to 24 hours to wait for results is not going to kill any of the candidates, let alone their supporters–and even the news media need to learn to chill.

Also, we have to remember we have a serious shortage of election judges, which could get worse rather than better by November, especially given that apparently many former judges quit out of concerns for their safety. I did not see any issues at the fairgrounds myself, and did not hear of any either.

The point is, now that we have identified the problem, we need to come up with solutions that allow us to take back the power and authority we were conned into giving away in the name of convenience. And also that do not kill the poor Election Judges we have made responsible for handling THE most important process any of us will ever participate in.

Will this proposal eliminate Election Fraud completely? Sadly, no. It would still be possible for mules to collect extra ballots from NGOs as was seen in 2,000 Mules. The voter rolls also need to be thoroughly cleaned up, with all voters being checked for the possibility of voting in more than one location (e.g. college students). But if we could encourage a large number of people to go to absentee ballots for the General Election of 2022, hand deliver their signed and sealed ballots to their designated drop boxes in the polling places or at the Elections Office in the county seat, and request their ballots be hand counted (and get a stamp or sticker placed on the envelope where it is easily visible), we could at least increase the chances of our votes at least being properly counted.

Ultimately, the only way to eliminate Election Fraud is for everyone to grow up and take back the response-ability for our lives that far too many of us have ceded to those who so desperately want to control us all for their own ends.


By Theresa Holmes

Observer and Recorder for Reality as a Whole. Storyteller, Artist, Designer of the Village of Tomorrow. Theresa served as Election Judge many times in Colorado and for the first time in Montana for the 2022 primary. Theresa has been active in politics for 30 years.
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