Gillespie County's election worker costs more than double after switch to hand count

Votebeat reports on the hand counting of ballots in a Texas county and the controversy over its cost to taxpayers.

Natalia Contreras for Votebeat
Posted 6/12/24

Votebeat reports on the hand counting of ballots in a Texas county and the controversy over its cost to taxpayers.

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Gillespie County's election worker costs more than double after switch to hand count

Votebeat reports on the hand counting of ballots in a Texas county and the controversy over its cost to taxpayers.

Posted

An election worker hand counts ballots inside of The Edge, a winery in Fredericksburg on Mar. 5, 2024.

Maria Crane // The Texas Tribune

The hand count of thousands of Republican primary election ballots in Gillespie County is on track to cost taxpayers more than double the wage costs of the 2020 Republican primary, according to records obtained by Votebeat.

Public records show Republicans employed 350 people to hand count, who collectively reported working more than 2,300 hours the day of the election at a rate of $12 per hour. That means more than $27,000 in wages.

Those numbers aren't final, and they're likely to grow. The tally does not include hourly wages for election clerks who worked at each of the county's 13 precincts on election day checking in voters and performing duties other than counting. In addition, Gillespie Republicans also hand counted ballots in a runoff election in May, which will add to the costs.

Gillespie's experience illustrates how election costs could rise if the method is more widely adopted across the state.

Four years ago, for the Republican primary election, the party spent less than $13,000 total on election worker wages, including wages for those who worked during a runoff election.

The initial costs also show the hand count of this year's primary is set to cost taxpayers more than what the county spends annually on electronic tabulating equipment that can be used across multiple elections.

Gillespie County paid $160,968 to purchase voting equipment from Hart Intercivic in 2021, according to a source familiar with the county's contract. The equipment has a 15-year life expectancy. In addition, the county spends $9,120 annually on licensing fees and technical support for the machines, plus around $6,000 per election for programming the equipment. Gillespie County elections administrator Jim Riley did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

State will reimburse costs — up to a point

The Texas Secretary of State's Office will reimburse Gillespie Republicans and other local parties across the state for primary and runoff election expenses. Last year, at an election law seminar hosted by the office, election division officials told political party chairs that the state has a fixed amount allocated to pay for primary elections.

Officials warned that if primary election costs were to increase beyond that amount because of multiple counties hand counting primary ballots, the state might not have enough money to reimburse all expenses. By law, the funds must be distributed equally across the state's local parties.

Experts said the additional costs associated with full hand counts are unnecessary and fiscally irresponsible.

"It's absurd to spend this money on this when elections in Texas especially are just so chronically underfunded," said Anthony Gutierrez, executive director of Common Cause Texas, a nonpartisan voter advocacy and government watchdog organization. "They could have used this funding for the election staff who are overworked and underpaid everywhere in Texas. It could be spent on election infrastructure so that voters have a more efficient voting experience, or on public outreach."

Luis Figueroa, chief of legislative affairs at Every Texan, a nonprofit group that advocates for fair taxation and voting rights, said that over the past two years, Republican lawmakers have approved election policies based on administrative errors and discrepancies in Harris County — a Democratic stronghold — but are doing nothing about the issues that surfaced during the Gillespie hand count.

"A machine breaks down in Harris County, and lawmakers have multiple hearings and pass bills that not only would sanction them, but also to remove county officials, or want a redo of the entire election," Figueroa said.

In contrast, in Gillespie, "they're having inaccuracies doing hand counting, and there's no accountability and no calls from anyone to stop this practice," he said.

Bruce Campbell, Gillespie County's Republican Party chairman, told Votebeat that increasing people's confidence in the election is worth the additional cost. When asked if he thought county residents felt more confident about the process following the hand count, he could not say.

"I don't have a sense of the county as a whole," he said. "I know the 350 people who participated in it are mostly enthusiastic about it."

Despite costs and errors, proponents stand by hand counting

Under Texas law, during a primary election, county governments are in charge of conducting early voting, but the political parties may choose their ballot counting method. On the day of the election, parties run the voting and choose the counting method.

In Gillespie, Republicans decided last fall to hand count this year's primary vote, more than 8,000 ballots in total. Experts agree and studies show the method is time-consuming, costly, less accurate, and less secure than using machines.

Nonetheless, citing unsupported concerns about the accuracy of voting machines, some people in Gillespie, including members of the Fredericksburg Tea Party, were determined to try and show otherwise.

The 350 workers recruited and trained by the party counted until the early hours of the next morning and touted the results as an unqualified success. But the county party subsequently had to fix a series of errors in the initial results in all but one of the county's 13 precincts.

The night of the primary election, nearly 100 people gathered to hand count early-voting ballots at a local winery. On the compensation forms they filled out, some reported working for more than 12 hours that day, though others said they worked as little as five or even three hours.

The operational costs of a primary election vary based on the choices the political party makes. For example, parties can contract with the county's election department for administrative services and voting equipment, or they can choose to have total control of the election and run it themselves.

Gillespie Republicans chose to handle almost every part of the election themselves. They printed their ballots and hand count tally sheets at a locally owned printer in Fredericksburg. These costs, along with what the party spent on supplies, polling location rentals, postage, and administrative costs, such as office supplies and office personnel's payroll, will be paid through funds allocated by the Legislature and distributed by the Secretary of State's Office. The final total is still unclear. The Secretary of State's Office declined to comment for this story.

Local parties submit a primary and runoff election cost estimate to the state, months ahead of Election Day. Upon approval, the state sends a portion of those costs to the parties, so they can prepare for the election and pay election workers. The final costs are reimbursed later this year.

In January, the Gillespie GOP estimated it would spend $34,210 on ballot printing and workers.

The state has allocated about $22 million to reimburse political parties and counties statewide for their primary and runoff election expenses. About $5 million of that comes from candidate filing fees.

Most counties decided against hand counts

Last summer, Republicans in counties large and small across the state considered hand counting ballots. Nearly all concluded that it would not be feasible, in part because of the cost. Nonetheless, proponents of hand counting continue to tout the method as a more secure way to run elections than electronic tabulators, and many are pointing to the Gillespie effort as an example of one that worked well, despite the costs and the initial errors in the results.

The push for hand counts is creating disruption in some communities.

In Kerr County, 30 minutes south of Gillespie, for example, Republicans have yet to win approval for a hand count, but the push to do it has already cost the county hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay for additional staff and resources following the resignation of county officials who managed elections.

Mo Saiidi, a former Republican county chair for Gillespie who resigned after publicly opposing the hand count, said voters deserve more details about how that primary election was conducted and the public should weigh whether hand counting actually improved anything. He doesn't think so.

"You have not proven that we have done any better job of election integrity or transparency, and at the same time, we have incurred an horrendous amount of costs," he said.

This story was produced by Votebeat and reviewed and distributed by Stacker Media.