Pennsylvania county begins state’s largest hand recount of the 2020 election — here’s how it’s going

Update, 4:45 pm, Jan 9: Lycoming County counted 23,486 ballots on the first day of its hand recount of the 2020 presidential election. Workers encountered no major problems, only minor discrepancies in the numbers of ballots expected to be contained in some batches. At a rate of 49.4 ballots counted per minute, the county should finish tallying votes from the approximately 60,000 ballots by Wednesday or Thursday, though it is unclear when the complete results will be announced.

More than two years after the last ballot was cast in the 2020 election, Lycoming County plans to recount all presidential votes by hand — an extraordinary step no other Pennsylvania county has taken.

County commissioners ordered the recount under pressure from activists associated with an election conspiracy group and against the advice of the local election director, who told proponents it would be a poor use of resources and unlikely to show the fraud they feared.

The county will begin the recount of roughly 60,000 ballots Monday in a labor-intensive process that could last as long as three weeks and cost tens of thousands of dollars.

Audit the Vote PA and similar groups that promote baseless conspiracy theories about elections have argued for hand recounts and forensic audits across the state, though those efforts have largely failed. York County agreed to hand-count three precincts in last year’s election, and Butler County performed a smaller hand recount of the 2020 election.

But the push for a broader review picked up traction in Lycoming, a largely rural county of slightly more than 100,000 people in north central Pennsylvania, best known for hosting the Little League World Series every summer. A petition calling for the recount was signed by 5,000 people, something that didn’t happen in other counties.

Forrest Lehman, the county’s election director, doesn’t think the recount will convince election skeptics to trust the process.

“I think there’s 5,000 people out there who signed a petition indicating at least some level of mistrust or misunderstanding on how our elections works and I think at some level that will always be there,” he said.

The push for the recount began after the 2020 election, according to a lawsuit filed against the county by the Lycoming County Patriots as well as a statement from local Audit the Vote PA volunteer and lawyer Karen DiSalvo.

Former U.S. Army Captain Seth Keshel, a well-known figure in election denial circles, released a report claiming that President Joe Biden’s strong performance in places like Lycoming County suggested fraud.

He cited growing Republican registration and dwindling numbers of Democrats, and compared that to the fact that Biden received 30% more votes in 2020 than Hillary Clinton did in 2016.

Experts have repeatedly said such trends are not indicative of fraud.

Registered Democrats and Republicans can decide to cast ballots for candidates from other parties. On top of that, turnout for all voters across the U.S. was high in 2020, and Biden’s total in Lycoming was less than the number of registered Democrats in the county. Former President Donald Trump also gained a greater number of votes relative to Republican registration.

But some people were nevertheless skeptical. Last winter, DiSalvo led a group of Audit the Vote PA volunteers in a door-to-door canvassing effort, searching for evidence of fraud.

Nearly half of surveyed houses, the volunteers claimed, had “anomalies” such as people saying they voted but having no vote recorded or more voters registered to an address than occupants. But the group has not released its raw data, and a similar effort by Audit the Vote in Lancaster County failed to ask basic questions, such as whether the person surveyed at a residence had actually been registered at that same address in 2020.

DiSalvo’s group then circulated a petition asking the county for 10 elections-related concessions that together represented a radical overhaul, including ceasing the use of electronic vote-counting machines, conducting a forensic audit of the 2020 election, and performing a hand recount.

Lehman repeatedly pushed back against the arguments DiSalvo and others made.

“I don’t believe anything presented here today currently justifies the extraordinary request to recount a two-year-old election,” Lehman said at a June meeting, according to a local news report. “No one was entitled to a specific outcome in the presidential election based on what voter registration totals or polling data might’ve suggested to them.”

The petition for a recount eventually amassed roughly 5,000 signatures, and in October the county commissioners voted along party lines to go ahead.

In an interview with Votebeat and Spotlight PA this week, Lehman said that, because there was no precedent for such a hand recount in the state, he had to “invent the wheel, basically.”

Forty county employees will participate, divided into 20 teams of one counter and one recorder each.

Ballots will be divided into roughly 180 batches based on ballot type, such as in-person, mail, or provisional. Teams will count one batch at a time, with batches ranging in size from one ballot to 1,400. The teams will only recount the presidential and the state auditor general races.

Recorders will use a tally sheet to record marks for each candidate choice, overvotes, or write-in that appears on the ballots.

“If that sounds inelegant, it’s because there is no real elegant way to do a hand count,” Lehman said. “You’re taking a process that is automated and making it analog.”

The count will be overseen by party representatives and open to reporters. DiSalvo said she is scheduled to watch parts of the count.

Lehman said he is hoping to complete the bulk of the work in one week, but the count is scheduled to continue through Jan. 31 if needed.

The commissioners have estimated the recount will cost roughly $55,000, and Lehman said he will be tracking expenses.

Experts, academics, and local officials, including Lehman, have repeatedly pointed out the inaccuracy of hand recounts, which introduce more potential for human error than machine counting. Lehman also noted that the county already performs audits after each election to ensure accuracy.

“I believe there is no way this hand count will be as accurate as the voting equipment,” Lehman said, stressing that the recount is unlikely to change the results. Small shifts, however, are possible for several reasons.

First, when election workers collected and counted the voted, unvoted, provisional, and other ballot types at the end of election night, they may have slightly miscounted the amount in each batch, and small errors like this are often discovered during recounts.

Also, humans and machines will interpret marks on the ballot differently. A mark that crosses between two candidates’ bubbles may trigger debate over the voter’s intent.

When this occurs, voter intent is determined by a team of bipartisan observers.

Finally, there is simple human error. If a volunteer gets distracted while counting a large batch of ballots, they may lose track of which ballots have or haven’t been counted, but Lehman said he has worked to minimize potential distractions.

Lehman is unsure about whether the recount will satisfy skeptics. The Lycoming County Patriots are suing the county claiming the commissioners are obligated to comply with all 10 of their requests, not just the recount.

“This hand count is one piece of the puzzle,” DiSalvo said in a statement. “We have paper ballots for a reason. We want to see if the paper ballots match the machine counts reported.”

In response to a follow-up question about whether she thought the recount would assuage concerns, DiSalvo said she didn’t expect the findings to be off by more than a few votes. She said rebuilding trust in the local process is the ultimate goal.

Lehman said the country’s approach to election technology has shifted over the years, moving toward fully electronic voting systems in the early 2000s and then, in recent years, shifting in the other direction. Lehman thinks the current balance between technology and manual work is about right, but he recognizes that not everyone will be convinced.

Still, “we’ve got to find a way as a country to get away from where we are now,” he said. “It’s OK for people to not be OK with the outcome of an election, but it’s not OK to have the conversation we are having right now. It’s not OK to only trust elections when your candidate wins. That is extremely corrosive.”

Carter Walker is a reporter for Votebeat in partnership with Spotlight PA. Contact Carter at cwalker@votebeat.org.

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.

How disputes over vote certification could play out in Pennsylvania

When polls close at 8 p.m. on Election Day, a nearly three-week process to finalize and certify results will begin, a period in which candidates could lodge objections to certain votes and spark protracted legal fights that would draw out a normally routine process.

Such disputes have grown more likely because of continued rhetoric from the right alleging voter fraud, and after some county boards of election resisted certifying all votes from their primary elections.

GOP gubernatorial nominee Doug Mastriano, a state senator, led the charge to question election results in 2020. He sought to overturn former President Donald Trump’s loss in Pennsylvania that year, and has repeatedly suggested there will be fraud in this year’s contest. He has not said whether he will accept this year’s results.

Meanwhile,Trump held a September meeting in Trump Tower with Pennsylvania elected officials and election activists, as reported by Rolling Stone. Trump expressed concern there would be fraud in the U.S. Senate race, particularly in Philadelphia, and was preparing to launch a media campaign and legal crusade should his preferred candidate be behind in the count on election night.

Many fair elections advocates in Pennsylvania anticipate challenges in this year’s contests, and say results certification and the handling of undated mail-in ballots are particular issues to watch.

Jeff Greenburg, Mercer County’s former longtime elections director who is now a senior adviser to The Voter Project, a Pennsylvania nonprofit focused on voting access, said he is particularly concerned with the possibility of “a county that attempts to refuse to certify for some reason that is not legally viable.”

Others echoed that, including J.J. Abbott, executive director of Commonwealth Communications and Gov. Tom Wolf’s former press secretary, who noted some counties declined to certify the complete results of the primary election due to a disagreement with the state over whether to include undated mail-in ballots. The dispute included Lancaster, Berks and Fayette counties, and was settled in court.

The largest jurisdictions will certify, Abbott said, and more reluctant counties “showed their hand a bit in the primary, which now we are more prepared for.”

During a press conference in mid-October, Acting Secretary of State Leigh Chapman did not answer a question from a reporter who asked what the state would do if counties again refused to certify. A spokesperson for the department, in response to a follow-up question from Votebeat this week, said that the department “expects counties to follow the law” and they will “consider our options” if counties do not do so.

That question of whether undated or incorrectly dated mail-in ballots should be considered valid is still murky — and very likely to again lead to legal challenges over which ballots to count in tight races.

Earlier this week, Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court deadlocked over whether rejecting such undated or incorrectly dated mail-in ballots violates federal civil rights law because the date is a technicality that doesn’t speak to the eligibility of the voter. On Tuesday the court ruled counties should not count undated or incorrectly dated mail-in ballots but must segregate and retain them, a strong signal that even the state’s highest court suspects the issue is not settled.

The order to segregate the ballots “sort of portends there might be further litigation and [the state Supreme Court justices] know it,” retired federal Judge John E. Jones said in a press briefing this week hosted by Keep Our Republic, a nonprofit group.

Meanwhile, in Philadelphia, GOP lawyers are contesting the city’s decision to change a process for guarding against double voting.The city says a new state law requiring continuous counting without a break means it can no longer pause tabulation to cross-check in-person voting records against the list of mail-in ballots received. The city has taken that time-consuming extra step, known as “poll book reconciliation,” in the past, but now says the new state law precludes it, and that it is unnecessary due to other safeguards.

The long process that will turn cast ballots into certified election results begins after polls close Tuesday, when counties will begin uploading in-person results to their websites and that of the Department of State. Most in-person voting results should be uploaded by midnight or shortly after, Greenburg said. But the counting of all mail-in and absentee ballots received by Election Day will continue nonstop into the next day in nearly all counties, and so those initial tallies are almost certain to change.

First results are, of course, both unofficial and far from final. Beginning Friday morning, Nov. 11, counties will begin their official canvass of the election.

“The canvass is just going through and double-, triple-checking that you have all of the ballots accounted for,” said Derek Muller, a law professor at the University of Iowa who specializes in elections law. Election officials are “making sure that everything is included and that every lawfully cast ballot is included in that final tally.”

County elections offices will process provisional ballots during this time, checking to make sure the voters who cast them had not already submitted a mail-in ballot or whether the provisional ballots were somehow otherwise ineligible.

Counties will also “reconcile” their votes, meaning they will check to ensure that the number of voters recorded as having cast ballots in a given precinct matches the number of ballots counted from that precinct. Greenburg said discrepancies can sometimes arise if a voter forgets to sign the poll book when checking in.

County elections offices also perform post-election audits during this period. Counties are required to do a recount of a random sample of 2% of ballots cast or 2,000 ballots, whichever is fewer. Many counties also began conducting risk-limiting audits after the 2020 election, in which a random sample of ballots are hand-counted to ensure the totals match the results from the tabulation machine.

By the Tuesday after Election Day, Nov. 15, counties must submit results — as up-to-date as possible, but still unofficial — to the Department of State. These figures could change slightly as military and overseas ballots, which must be received by the 15th, are counted and included in the tallies.

The counties must certify the final results by Monday, Nov. 28.

Greenburg said that local boards of election, comprised of the county’s commissioners, must sign a copy of the results twice for an election to be certified. Typically, candidates raise any challenges to the canvassing process in the five-day window between the first and second signings.

Those challenges could be based on, per typical cases Greenburg has seen, allegations that tabulation machines are not operating properly in a precinct, or that a county’s reported results from a precinct do not match the number of voters who voted there.

Candidates can also use the contestation provision of the election code to lodge objections up to 20 days after an election.

“In this day and age, that could be anything,” Greenburg said. “In my era that was unheard of.”

Those objections can include things not related to the tabulation of votes, but rather the way in which the election was conducted, such as the propriety of ballots received through drop boxes or the chain of custody of votes transported from precincts to central counting locations, Greenburg said.

Marian Schneider, senior voting rights policy counsel for the Pennsylvania ACLU, said during a press briefing this week that candidates have the ability during the canvassing process to challenge decisions by the local board of elections about which votes should be counted or not, and candidates can even appeal those decisions to the courts.

One such example is the 2021 dispute in Lehigh County over undated mail-in ballots, which made its way all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. That case was eventually dismissed as moot.

Trump’s lawyers “took advantage of those procedures in 2020 and none of those went any further,” she said. “I imagine that we can look back at the 2020 election for the kinds of things we might see again.”

In 2020, Trump’s legal team sought to block counties from certifying the vote, objected to the number and level of access for poll watchers, and tried to prevent mail-in ballots from being counted, among other challenges. Trump lost all but one of the cases he filed in Pennsylvania, with the exception being a case involving how close poll watchers could be to proceedings in Philadelphia.

Trump also tried to declare victory prior to all votes being counted, something he also urged Dr. Mehmet Oz, his endorsed candidate for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania, to do in the primary. Oz’s campaign, however, has said he will accept the results of the election.

Abbott, who organized the press briefing with Schneider and others this week, said he thinks many of the tactics used to try to overturn Pennsylvania’s 2020 election results will not work.

“We’re trying to proactively show that a lot of these things cannot succeed or haven’t in the past,” he said.

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.