'Manufactured chaos': Conspiracies fuel hand-counting push in midterm elections

Conspiracy-endorsing US politicians have amped up their rhetoric against voting machines as two swing state counties moved to allow hand counting ahead of next week's midterm election -- at the risk of stoking doubt about polling accuracy.

The contentious Republican push for hand counting -- which US experts consider often less accurate than machine counting and prone to delays -- has gained traction since Donald Trump falsely asserted that voter fraud led to his 2020 election defeat.

The rhetoric got a fresh boost last week when officials in rural Cochise County in the battleground state of Arizona voted in favor of counting ballots by hand, ignoring warnings of logistical challenges and threats of lawsuits.

The move came after officials in Nye County in Nevada, another swing state, approved hand counting, citing deep mistrust among local residents in tabulation machines.

"Best practices in hand counting take time and care to implement," Pamela Smith, president of the nonpartisan nonprofit Verified Voting, told AFP.

"These last-minute changes in Nevada and Arizona introduce chaotic conditions that invite errors and undermine confidence, not least because they are hard for the public to observe."

The American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada last week filed a lawsuit against Nye County to stop the hand count, saying it threatened the integrity of elections.

"A general election is not the time for political hacks to try to suppress voting rights so they can look strong to people who have been manipulated by disinformation campaigns and conspiracy theories," Athar Haseebullah, its executive director, said in a statement.

The developments in Arizona and Nevada, just ahead of next week's midterms, follow a far-right campaign falsely asserting that voting machines manipulated votes away from Trump in the 2020 election.

Republicans introduced bills in at least six states this year to ban machine counting of ballots, according to the Voting Rights Lab, which tracks electoral legislation across the country.

Earlier this year, Jim Marchant, Nevada's Republican candidate for secretary of state, told a meeting of Nye County officials to "dispose" of all electronic voting machines.

"It is imperative that you secure the trust of your constituents... by ensuring that you have a fair and transparent election and the only way to do that is to not use electronic voting or tabulation machines," Marchant said, according to an online video of the meeting.

In April, Kari Lake and Mark Finchem, Republican nominees for Arizona governor and secretary of state, filed a lawsuit in a federal court seeking the hand counting of ballots in the state.

The suit claimed machine tabulators were "potentially unsecure" and "deprive voters of the right to have their votes counted and reported in an accurate, auditable, legal, and transparent process." It offered no supporting evidence.

The judge dismissed the lawsuit, prompting the candidates to file an appeal.

Academic studies have shown the opposite of their assertion to be true.

A 2018 study published in the Election Law Journal analyzed two statewide recounts in Wisconsin, including the 2016 presidential election. It found that "vote counts originally conducted by computerized scanners were, on average, more accurate."

Gregory Miller, the co-founder of the nonpartisan nonprofit OSET Institute, said hand counting would introduce the possibility of "manufactured chaos."

"Counting machinery provides accuracy, efficiency, and timeliness in ballot processing," Miller told AFP.

"Relying on hand-counting would introduce more errors, more delays, and more chaos than relying on machines that can be audited."

Voting technology companies have filed a flurry of lawsuits against Trump allies and media outlets for false claims that they rigged the 2020 election.

Dominion Voting System, which provided machines to more than two dozen states, sued Fox News for $1.7 billion, accusing the cable television network of "intentionally and falsely" blaming it for Trump's election defeat.

Its suit said the "viral" disinformation "deeply damaged" its once-thriving business and its employees "have been stalked, harassed, and received death threats."

Fox News also faces a separate $2.7 billion defamation suit from Smartmatic, another voting technology firm which alleges that the network's disinformation campaign harmed its reputation and business interests.

In its appeals to dismiss the cases, Fox defended its coverage, saying it aired "newsworthy allegations made by a sitting president and his advisers about matters of public concern."

The widespread disinformation targeting voting machines threatens the entire democratic system, analysts say.

"There is a grave risk that this election will devolve into countless claims by election deniers and those who want to stoke fear, uncertainty and doubt," Miller said.

"It is possible the results of the midterm elections may not be settled for months."