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New Ballot Machine Saved Idaho County Hours Of Hand Counting

Aaron Webb
Flickr Creative Commons

The Idaho Secretary of State’s office reports that fewer than 10 of Idaho’s 44 counties still count ballots by hand each election night.

In Idaho County, the May primary was a wake-up call for Clerk Kathy Ackerman. She realized for the general election she would need to drastically increase staff, buy a machine for the first time ever, or expect to be counting ballots for days in November.

“I learned a lot from the primary election and how long it takes to count hand-count that many ballots,” Ackerman said. “I didn't recognize that before, because it was done out in the precincts.”

There are about 11,000 registered voters in Idaho County, geographically, Idaho’s largest.

About 45% of those registered voters returned absentee ballots for the November election. Those are returned to the clerk in Grangeville, and with a hand count, could have meant a days-long process.

This summer, Ackerman worked with the Secretary of State’s office to purchase a counting machine, which cost about $50,000. Staff training wrapped up about a month ago, and they used the machine on election night for absentee ballots and those cast Tuesday from nearby precincts. That was about 60% of all the ballots in Idaho County. Far-flung voting centers continued to count ballots by hand.

I've got five precincts that are more than 50 miles away,” she explained. “In November, when you can't count on what the roads might be like, we just felt that it would be more efficient to keep things the same out in the county and just handle the closer things here.”

A more expansive machine counting option would have placed a machine in each precinct. That plan cost twice as much and may have been too steep a learning curve for long-time volunteers.

Ackerman said she wasn’t comfortable taking advantage of an early counting period allowed by the legislature this election due to 24/7 security and video streaming requirements.

“I could just see myself in the middle of the night Googling, ‘What to do when live streaming fails,’” she quipped.

The new machine helped ensure ballots were all counted by Tuesday night, but the learning experience continues.

“At least on the bigger elections — the midterm elections, the national elections we’ll be using that for sure because the voter turnout here is super high,” she said.

Ackerman added that she might change the style of the county’s ballots so staff won’t need to unfold and flatten them for the machine.

Follow Troy Oppie on Twitter @GoodBadOppie for more local news.

Copyright 2020 Boise State Public Radio

Troy Oppie is a reporter and local host of 'All Things Considered' for Boise State Public Radio News.

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