Hand-counted election audit finds low error rate with Nebraska’s voting machines

Secretary of State Evnen had faced criticisms from some who wanted hand counts of all ballots

By: - December 16, 2022 6:20 pm

Signs direct voters at an Omaha polling place in a church basement. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

OMAHA — After facing months of questions about election integrity from populist Republicans, Nebraska Secretary of State Bob Evnen — also a Republican — probed deeper to confirm his belief that the state’s voting processes were “reliable and accurate.”

On Friday, his office released the results from an expanded audit of general election ballots, checking at least one precinct in all 93 counties. The audit hand-counted 48,292 ballots from 10% of precincts. That’s significantly more than the typical 2%-3% of precincts audited after each election.

County election officials found a total of 11 ballot discrepancies, bolstering what Evnen and most political observers have consistently argued: that Nebraska’s vote-counting machines are accurate. The number of errors translates into one out of every 4,390 votes, or roughly 0.02%. 

“There are Nebraskans who have expressed concerns about the integrity of the voting process,” Evnen told the Nebraska Examiner on Friday. “I thought it was important for us to address those concerns.”

Few errors

Secretary of State Robert Evnen
Secretary of State Robert Evnen (Courtesy of Nebraska Secretary of State’s Office)

Five of the 11 affected ballots had ovals that weren’t filled in darkly enough to be read by the machines, but people doing the hand recount were able to verify the voters’ intent. Evnen contended in a statement that that means the machines’ actual error rate was even lower. 

He described the results as “very, very impressive … a great credit to the county clerks and the county election officials across the state, our friends and neighbors and poll workers who conduct the elections in Nebraska.”

Evnen said Nebraskans should feel reassured “that the equipment utilized to count ballots is secure and accurate.” He said witnesses from both parties observed the audit.

The error rate was also lower than studies have found in districts that count votes by hand. Those studies have shown discrepancies of nearly three-tenths of 1%. Academics and experts who study elections have found that machine counting is consistently more accurate than hand counting. 

Push for hand counts

Some losing candidates in recent years, including former President Donald Trump, have stoked fears about voting machines among some Republicans. Two GOP candidates who challenged Evnen in last May’s primary for secretary of state campaigned for hand counts of paper ballots.

Nebraska legislative candidate Russ Barger (closest to camera) waits for court hearing to start this week. He filed suit seeking to force the state to hand recount his 223-vote loss to Democrat George Dungan III. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

Evnen, who supported Nebraska’s recently passed ballot initiative to require that voters show ID to vote, said during the primary campaign that Nebraska’s election system, which uses paper ballots, allows post-election audits that verify the accuracy of the machines used to count the ballots.

“Hand counting is a very tedious process,” Evnen said. “It’s our experience generally that the machines are much faster and more reliable.” 

The Secretary of State’s Office also won a victory in Lancaster County District Court this week against Russ Barger, a GOP legislative candidate from Lincoln. Barger, who lost to Democrat George Dungan by 223 votes, argued in court that he should be able to receive a hand recount. 

In some extraordinarily close races, those separated by tens of votes, hand recounts have changed outcomes, Barger argued, pointing to a recent legislative race in Iowa in which a Democratic candidate’s six-vote lead turned into an 11-vote win for the Republican.

Evnen, in initially denying Barger’s request for a hand recount, said state law requires him to handle recounts in the same manner used in the election. The Nebraska Attorney General’s Office argued that the choice was Evnen’s. The judge agreed.

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Aaron Sanderford
Aaron Sanderford

Political reporter Aaron Sanderford has tackled various news roles in his 20-plus year career. He has reported on politics, crime, courts, government and business for the Omaha World-Herald and Lincoln Journal-Star. He also worked as an assignment editor and editorial writer. He was an investigative reporter at KMTV.