By Carter Walker of Votebeat
This article is made possible through Spotlight PA’s collaboration with Votebeat, a nonpartisan news organization covering local election administration and voting. This article is available for reprint under the terms of Votebeat’s republishing policy.
A recount of the 2020 presidential race conducted this week in a Pennsylvania county did not find any major discrepancies from the original results.
Lycoming County employees spent nearly three days hand-counting more than 59,000 ballots after more than a year’s worth of pressure from local elections skeptics resulted in the county commissioners voting along party lines to recount the 2020 presidential and state auditor general’s race.
The recount was completed more quickly than expected. After counting from 8:30 a.m. to roughly 5 p.m. on Monday and Tuesday, the ballots remaining Wednesday were counted in less than two hours, an overall average pace of 55.5 ballots per minute.
Lycoming County elections director Forrest Lehman hardly left the room, as he was eager to complete the process before his wife was scheduled to give birth next week.
Lycoming’s original results, tabulated by machines, showed 59,397 votes cast in the presidential contest, with 41,462 going to former President Donald Trump and 16,971 going to President Joe Biden. The hand recount resulted in a total of 59,374 votes in the presidential race, with Trump receiving 7 fewer votes and Biden receiving 15 fewer votes compared with the original tally..
In the auditor general’s race, the original tally was 58,627 votes cast, though the hand recount only found 58,615. Republican Auditor General Tim DeFoor’s winning vote total dropped by 10, and Democratic challenger Nina Ahmad’s total increased by 11.
Lehman said the county is still reviewing the hand count and plans to have a more expansive version of the report explaining the small changes later this month.
How was the recount performed?
Roughly 20 employees, working in teams of one reader and one recorder, counted 183 batches of ballots which had been organized by type: in-person, mail, and provisional.
The count was performed on an empty office floor in a county building in Williamsport. Three rows of white folding tables were set up, and workers spaced themselves at least one table apart.
Except for the low hum of the building’s heating unit and the sound of workers turning ballots and reading the votes, the room was mostly quiet.
Lehman sat at a table at one end of the room near a storage closet with the batches of ballots. Workers came to his table to sign batches in and out, and ask questions.
Each team had a slightly different approach. Some wore disposable rubber finger page turners, while others simply licked their fingers to make sure two ballots weren’t stuck together.
And while some teams counted both the presidential and auditor general’s race at once, others tallied one race completely before starting the same ballots over to capture the second race.
Human error impacts accuracy of process
Lehman repeatedly cautioned before and during the hand count that results would be less accurate due to the potential for human error, something that does not exist when ballots are counted by machine.
Many of the issues he highlighted were on display throughout the week.
The total number of ballots counted in roughly 18 batches this week did not match the previously recorded result, so with extra time at their disposal, workers counted those batches again. In all but five or six cases, Lehman said, employees discovered that mismatches were due to human error in the recount process — not the original count from poll workers on election night.
For example, a worker counting a batch from Jersey Shore, a borough in the county, originally counted three or four fewer ballots in the batch, although poll workers on election night had reported 363 ballots. A recount of the batch also showed 363 ballots.
Lehman said that these mismatches, known as “ballot inventory errors,” are generally due to poll workers writing the wrong numbers down on their inventory sheets on election night.
For their part, counters also occasionally became distracted and had to restart, miscounted ballots, or wrote the wrong numbers down on their vote tally sheets.
For example, one team of ballot counters turned in a tally sheet with 41 tally marks for a candidate, but wrote 44 in the “total” line, a mistake that was later caught and corrected.
Workers occasionally got off track. A black Labrador also roamed the room looking for leftover food from the catered lunches, and workers gave him affectionate pets as he passed under their tables.
“The machines don’t get tired, get distracted,” Lehman said while relaying an instance of a counter being so burnt out that, despite recounting a batch multiple times, they kept coming up with different numbers.
Another team counted 408 ballots in its batch, though the original count indicated the number should be 412. A county worker then discovered three ballots were stuck to the bottom of the box and the team recounted the whole batch, ultimately arriving at 412.
Will the results change any opinions?
Lehman noted that the goal of the exercise was not 100% accuracy, what he would be seeking if these were being used as the official results. Rather, it was to prove the accuracy of the machine tabulation system.
Karen DiSalvo — a volunteer with Audit the Vote PA, an election conspiracy group — agreed in a statement before the count that this was the goal, as did Don Peters, chair of the county GOP committee, in an interview on the first day of the count.
“Our interest with this is in ensuring voters, not just our voters but all Lycoming voters, that this portion of the system functions,” he said. “I think there’s this idea that we want to find some issues. We don’t.”
But others think there is no outcome that would satisfy those who have spent the last two years questioning the results.
“They are using this as a vehicle to shout about their grievances,” said Morgan Allyn, the former chair of the county’s Democratic party.
Allyn was there as an observer for the party, and thinks that when the results disappoint recount backers again, they will move the goalpost.
There’s been some sign of this already. Lycoming Patriots, one of the conservative groups that pushed for the recount, sued the county last month for not fully implementing a series of election changes the group had sought in addition to the recount.
And DiSalvo has already sought to cast doubt on the results of the recount. She questioned the accuracy of the results even before they were posted, saying that because Lehman was the one counting the vote tally sheets, the results would be suspect because he had a “vested interest.”
DiSalvo complained about not having access to the tally sheets, but said if the results are accurate, “it confirms our position that hand counts can be done quickly and economically and should be a part of every election going forward.”
Peters said he thinks it will give people more confidence in the system.
“I think there was a total of maybe 37 discrepancies, so yeah that’s not a deal breaker,” he said. “But you get to half a percent, I think maybe there’s something to worry about.”
He said that it was “a win for democracy” to see the system was working correctly and have that question answered for constituents. The only complaint he had was the same as DiSalvo’s, that voter services tallied the final results.
“I have no issue with Forrest Lehman, but transparency requires someone outside to do that.”
Lycoming County is unique, not just because it was the only county to recount its 2020 election by hand, but also because of Lehman himself.
While many elections directors left in the wake of 2020′s threats against election workers, and others have declined to speak out against claims of fraud, Lehman has consistently pushed back against misinformation and conspiracy theories.
Asked if he is ever concerned that his outspokenness will compromise his safety or job security, he said “no,” and added that he felt it was his civic duty to correct misinformation.
“Because I’m an Eagle Scout, I believe in being true to yourself and leaving every campsite better than you found it,” Lehman said. “Whether that’s an actual campsite or your community.”
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Featured image caption: Carter Walker / Votebeat
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