Voting machines reduce errors in elections


This is the third in a four-part series on voter education information from the Seward County Clerk.

Election officials have been battling much misinformation about the election process since the 2020 election.

One of those rumors is that the machines used to count ballots are fradulent – something Seward County Clerk and Election Commissioner Sherry Schweitzer said is simply false.

“In my experience in the County Clerk’s Office, I have done both hand counting and machine counting of ballots, so I have first-hand knowledge about both processes,” Schweitzer said.

She has served as election commissioner for the past 25 years, but has worked in the clerk’s office for 44 years – assisting with elections the entire time.

Schweitzer shared what she has experienced with both methods.


Hand counting

One of the first obstacles that makes hand counting ballots a challenge, Schweitzer said, is staffing.

“Not only did we have to find 80 people to work the election precincts – those are the ones you see at the table when you go to vote – we also had to find 80 people to count the ballots,” she said.

The process went something like this:

• ballots were hand counted in the precinct in which they were cast, one at a time;

• ballots were divided into stacks of 25 to make counting easier;

• the result of the hand tally was then written in a “votes cast” book;

• a worker would deliver the ballots and tally book to the courthouse, where the “votes cast” number was read out loud and added to the other precinct totals for the county.

“It was a tedious task and took a long time,” Schweitzer said. “We were working election night until 1 or 2 a.m. One time, I remember getting home at 5:00 in the morning!”

She said the 10- to 14-hour shifts of an election worker made it much more likely that a tired hand counter would make a mistake.


Machine counting

About 35 years ago, Seward County purchased its first machine to count ballots.

“Then, like now, it was only plugged into an electrical outlet,” Schweitzer said. “We didn’t have to hire 80 extra people to count the ballots. We just plugged the machine in and it scanned the ovals that people marked and gave us a printout of the vote totals.”

This made it easier, faster and more accurate to collect totals.

“I can remember taxpayers lauding the fact that Seward County was keeping up with technology and getting our results out sooner than in years past,” Schweitzer said.

Soon after, a majority of Nebraska’s counties were counting the same way.

But how could they be sure the report was accurate?

Each county clerk’s office in Nebraska is directed to make a “Test Deck.” Seward County makes three of them.

“We take 50 to 100 ballots and we mark and hand count them ourselves. Then we have the machine count the ballots,” Schweitzer said. “In theory, the totals should be the same, right?  Well, almost always, there has been a difference, and guess which total was wrong? Yes, the hand counted total.”

She said hand counting is not an easy task for a number of reasons.

For one, not all ballots are the same. A ballot for a voter in the City of Milford, for example, doesn’t have the Seward mayor’s race or Seward City Council race on it.

The school board race is for Milford, not Seward.

For voters in Utica or any other village, a village trustee race and a Norris Public Power race would be listed, but those don’t apply for voters in Seward or Milford.

Because of these different races, there can be up to 83 different ballot combinations in Seward County alone, Schweitzer said.

In each race, the names are rotated so a candidate’s name is not always in the same position in the list if there are others running for the same office.

“Names and races do not always appear on each ballot in the same place, so hand counting ballots is a lot more difficult than one would expect,” Schweitzer said.

She said to see just how difficult it can be, voters can conduct a quick test with a few friends:

Jot down 20 numbers, single- or double-digit, then quickly add them up without using a calculator or computer.

Then, give the list of numbers to your friends and have them add them.

“I recently did this simple test to six people, and I got four different answers,” Schweitzer said. “That’s what would happen if we went to hand counting ballots – different answers each time.”


Evolving technology

Seward County is now on its third vote counting machine, which counts ballots at approximately 80 per minute.

The machine takes a picture of every ballot so staff can see a write-in vote if needed.

“It is not connected to the internet. It cannot be hacked,” Schweitzer said. “We test it with our own test decks that are made in my office by my staff.”

The company that produces the machine, Election Systems and Software, is based in Nebraska.

“Election Systems and Software knows that elections need to be safe and secure and has been in the election business for over 40 years and is world renowned,” Schweitzer said. “Their machines have been certified by the U.S. Election Commission and go through rigorous testing before we use them.”

Schweitzer compared the advance of voting technology to any other type of technology that has evolved over the decades.

“Going back to counting ballots by hand would be like throwing your cell phone away and going back to party lines, or like using a manual typewriter instead of the computer,” she said. “Imagine going to a store and they don’t use UPC codes to scan your purchase. Instead they use a pen or pencil and add up your purchase by hand. That is what going to hand counting would be like.”

Schweitzer said she is not in favor of hand counting ballots under video surveillance in polling places – a suggestion recently backed by Nebraska Republicans at their state convention.

“Do people think your friends and neighbors who help on Election Day for 12 to 13 hours are stealing ballots? Do you know how much money it would cost to put cameras in all the polling places?” Schweitzer said. “We have a very good process for counting ballots in Nebraska. Our voting machine is just like a computer. It just ‘counts the ovals’ that the voter fills in. There is no pre-picked winner, no fraud, no one ‘hacking’ in. Just quick, correct answers on election night.”


Myths about machines

Schweitzer shared the following myths about machine counting ballots:

1. Voting machines were hacked in the 2020 election.   

False – The machines are only plugged in, not hooked up to the internet, so they can’t be hacked.

“It’s a security measure we’d already taken before the 2020 election,” she said.

2. Voting machines are foreign-owned, so there is fraud.

False – Although Seward County’s machine was purchased from a Nebraska company, Schweitzer said foreign machines don’t automatically mean fraud.

“Companies like Frigidaire, Budweiser, 7-11 Convenience stores are all foreign-owned, as well as many vehicle manufacturers,” she noted.

3. A ballot jam in a machine is the sign of fraud.

False – “Ballots processed in our voting machine rarely jam, but like any technological device, it sometimes needs attention,” Schweitzer said. “Our machine will indicate if a ballot has been counted or not, so we know if we need to run the ballot through again.

4. Voting machines have high error rates.

False. – If ballots are run through the machine over and over again, the answer will be the same.

“If there is a different result, it’s usually human error,” Schweitzer said.