I have five things to say about this.
Responsibility for running elections in Kerr County has shifted among three different people in the past two months. The first two officials bailed on the job after a months-long effort by one Republican county official to rid the county of electronic voting equipment and begin hand counting all ballots. The push has divided the overwhelmingly Republican county — a verdant stretch of the Hill Country split by the Guadalupe River — and will cost taxpayers around $250,000 due to the many changeovers.
So far, the effort has failed. Still, Kerr County Republican Party Chair Paul Zohlen told Votebeat the effort — led largely by Republican County Commissioner Rich Paces — has “single-handedly taken a wrecking ball to one of the finest election departments in the state.”
“This had never happened before,” Zohlen said. “And now the county clerk will have to put together a team and impart the 10 to 15 years of experience they need by March of 2024.”
Until late August, elections in Kerr County, home to Kerrville and with a population of more than 50,000 people, were managed by the tax assessor’s office. Bob Reeves, a Republican elected to the role in 2018, told Votebeat he refused to continue the work because of the growing distrust in elections there, which made an already time-consuming, stressful, and low-paying job nearly impossible.
“I was put between a proverbial rock and a hard place,” Reeves said. The recent demands for hand counting stemming from baseless suspicions about the security of the current system, he said, made the work seem hopeless.
The duties, therefore, were transferred to Jackie Dowdy, the county clerk. She, too, refused and resigned her position entirely. Her chief deputy, Ian Collum, was appointed as interim clerk while the county conducts the search for her replacement. He and others in that department, which has not handled elections in more than a decade, will now be placed in charge of helping Kerr County’s 40,000 registered voters cast their ballots in 2024.
Fueled by misinformation and baseless claims that electronic voting equipment is manipulated to change election results, the push to hand count ballots in Kerr County is similar to other efforts happening across Texas and elsewhere. Communities that have recently embraced hand counting of ballots — a method that election administration experts have said and studies have shown is less accurate, more costly, and less secure — have become hotly divided. In some cases, such as Cochise County, Arizona, it has pushed election officials out of their jobs and fractured trust in local elections.
Experts told Votebeat it may take years to undo the chaos and to restore the erosion of trust in elections that the effort to hand count has created in Kerr and elsewhere.
“These communities are spending an incredible amount of time trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist. And as a result, creating a whole series of new very real problems,” said Justin Grimmer, a professor in the department of political science and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University who is currently conducting research on efforts to hand count ballots in counties across the country.
Only a small handful of counties in Texas — all with populations of fewer than 10,000 residents — hand count their election results. In West Texas’ Glasscock County, which has fewer than 800 registered voters, it made little sense to buy expensive equipment for a job that could easily be done by hand, for example. Their small numbers and short ballots allow these counties to complete and submit vote totals within 24 hours of the polls closing on Election Day.
Right now, the effort to hand count ballots in Kerr County has reached a stopping point. This fall, a vote to change the county’s counting process ahead of 2024 failed. But neither Paces nor county election officials believe this fight is over.
“This was just the first skirmish,” Paces told Votebeat.
The prospect of hand counting put Reeves, he told Votebeat, in what he perceived to be legal jeopardy. If the county were sued over the results of a future election, or if a lawsuit questioned the accuracy of hand counting, he would not be able to defend the practice in a courtroom. He also had no confidence that hand counting could be done in the time set under law, which requires counties to report results 24 hours after polls close. He also would not be able to explain why commissioners disagreed on whether to trust electronic vote-counting equipment even though he says he has confidence in the machines.
“Without their unanimous support I could not do my job properly,” Reeves told Votebeat after he resigned his election duties in August. By law, unless the county creates an elections department and appoints an elections administrator, the county clerk must serve as the county elections officer. The Texas Election Code allows the county commissioners, however, to transfer the election administration duties from the clerk to the tax-assessor collector, if needed – and if both departments are in agreement — which Kerr County did in 2008.
Meanwhile, Reeves tried other ways to show Paces and the other commissioners that hand-counting the ballots of the county’s more than 38,000 registered voters would not be feasible. With the help of county workers, Reeves tested how long it would take to count 100 ballots from Kerr County’s March 2020 Republican primary: “With fresh eyes, it took an hour to count 32 ballots,” Reeves said.
He also warned that the county already struggles to find enough election workers and the facilities for the 20 polling locations for each election. In order to hand count, the county would likely need to double the number of poll workers, the funds to pay them and larger spaces to conduct hand counts based on the number of ballots. “That’s more than 200 people that we’d need to work nonstop,” Reeves said.
None of the evidence Reeves or others showed to Paces changed his mind.
There’s a lot more, and it gets more deranged, so read the rest. My five things:
1. This is what happens when a significant portion of the population is fed a constant and unwavering diet of lies and propaganda. That said, as Fred Clark and others have pointed out, the people who do believe this stuff choose to believe it because they want to. There’s plenty of information that is easily accessible to them that patiently explains to them why the stuff they choose to believe is wrong, yet they continue to believe it. It’s a choice. They have agency.
2. It would be absolutely hilarious if Kerr County, which as the story notes voted 75% for the Former Guy in 2020, puts itself into a position where it would be unable to accurately report its November 2024 tally in a timely fashion because they aren’t anywhere close to being done. Yes, I know, in states that allow expansive voting by mail, some results aren’t fully counted until several days after the election because of later-arriving ballots, but that’s planned and expected. And they have up-to-date daily totals along the way. This is all hypothetical for now, but as our boy Commissioner Paces says, it ain’t over.
3. Which leads to the question, would the Legislature be at all interested in the failure of a county like Kerr if they have this kind of self-inflicted disaster? Would they want to step in and prevent this from becoming a possibility? Given that Sen. Bob Hall, the platonic combination of stupid and malicious, is a huge proponent of hand-counting, as long as he’s in the Senate the odds of backsliding are much greater than the odds of making progress.
4. That 32-ballots-in-an-hour pace may seem slow, but it’s two minutes per ballot. Given the number of races, the need to at least double-check everything as you go, the need to write stuff down as you go, and everything else that comes with a manual process, this seems like a reasonable rate. It’s a real question whether it could be maintained over many thousands of ballots – there were almost 28K ballots cast in Kerr County in 2020, and this is a growing populace – because people get tired and lose focus when doing repetitive tasks. For the record, at two minutes per ballot, 28K ballots would take 933 hours, or almost 39 days, to count. That’s like a month longer than it takes those everyone-can-vote-by-mail-and-any-ballot-mailed-by-Election-Day-counts states take to get a high-confidence final tally.
(By the way, there were over 1.6 million ballots cast in Harris County in 2020. At one second per ballot, which I think we can all agree is faster than anyone could count by hand even if we didn’t have so damn many races on them, it would take 19 days to get through them all. At two minutes per ballot, it would take about six years and three months. I hope we can all agree that whatever you think of Harris County elections in recent years, we reported results faster than that.)
(And yes, you could obviously lessen the amount of time for counting ballots by throwing more people at it. But 1) you have to actually be able to hire all those people, 2) the more people doing the counting, each of separate piles of ballots, increases the chances of a screwup, which among other things might result in the need to start all over again from scratch, and 3) we haven’t even talked about how much space 1.6 million ballots would take up.)
5. Commissioner Paces moved to Texas from Ohio ten years ago. The main wingnut local agitator who has been egging him on is a California transplant. (*) This is a reminder that not every batshit wingnut idea comes from the natives, and not everyone who moves here from elsewhere, even from a state like California, is helping to turn Texas blue.
Anyway. Read the rest, and know that no matter how brain-meltingly stupid things can get, they can always get worse.
(*) In the story, the Kerr County Judge at one point said to this noxious lady “I know you’re new from California, and you don’t understand how Texas local government works. We’re required to abide by and follow the law.” This too made me laugh.