Tabulator catches human error in Tripp County post-election audit

‘To me, that shows that the machine is more accurate than humans,’ auditor says

By: - Tuesday November 15, 2022 1:48 pm

Tabulator catches human error in Tripp County post-election audit

‘To me, that shows that the machine is more accurate than humans,’ auditor says

By: - 1:48 pm

Tripp County will be the first South Dakota county in two decades to hand count ballots in an election, according to the Secretary of State’s Office.

Tripp County will be the first South Dakota county in two decades to hand count ballots in an election, according to the Secretary of State’s Office.

The case of Tripp County’s 75 “missing” ballots has been solved, County Auditor Barb Desersa said this week.

The discrepancy emerged last week after a hand count of ballots in the only county in South Dakota in nearly 20 years to perform one. The mismatch does not have any impact on election results.

Tripp County officials were prepared to ask for a court order to reopen a ballot box to find the answer, but the question was resolved without one. The human error explanation for the mismatch, it turned out, was right there in the records from the vote tabulator – the machine that county commissioners had ordered Desersa not to use to tally the county’s official, reportable Election Day results.

A Thursday vote canvas revealed a discrepancy in a single precinct between the number of official, completed ballots recorded in the poll book and the number of audited ballots in one precinct. 

Several races had to be recounted by Tripp County’s volunteer counting boards – sometimes three or four times on election night. The last precinct to come in, Colome, had mismatched numbers according to the tabulator audit the next day.

Desersa ran the audit to prove to her county commissioners and residents that the machine was accurate.

The mismatched numbers prove the point, Desersa said Monday.

Barb Desersa, Auditor for Tripp and Todd counties in south-central South Dakota, will hand count an estimated 1,050 ballots from Tripp County in the 2022 election.
Barb Desersa, Auditor for Tripp and Todd counties in south-central South Dakota, will hand count an estimated 1,050 ballots from Tripp County in the 2022 election. (John Hult/South Dakota Searchlight)

Each ballot handed out on Election Day is identified by precinct, she said, with the precinct name printed on the bottom of each ballot. Somehow staff placed 100 ballots labeled for another precinct in the Colome-labeled ballot box ahead of the election. Those ballots were then used and voted on during Election Day in Colome.

While the poll books and hand counts were accurate with the number of ballots for that precinct, the tabulator recognized that 75 of the ballots from the Colome precinct were originally labeled for another precinct, Clearfield.

Days after the election, those 75 ballots were found tallied in the tabulator’s history for the Clearfield precinct, rather than for Colome, even though they recorded Colome votes.

“Nobody noticed they were (labeled as) Clearfield ballots instead of Colome all day,” Desersa said. “They’re written on the bottom. But it shows the machine is more accurate because it knew to put those Clearfield ballots into the precinct. It read it as ‘those don’t belong there.’ It was human error.”

Staff didn’t realize the problem at first because they run ballots through the machine by precinct rather than in a county-wide batch. Colome was the last precinct, so they didn’t think to check other precinct numbers. It was after they found a handful of unused Clearfield-labeled ballots inside Colome’s unused ballot box that they realized  what had happened.

“The machine caught it,” Desersa said. “To me, that shows that the machine is more accurate than humans.”

While the mystery of the 75 ballots is solved, Desersa still believes it’ll be a long week. Word has spread that the tabulator “lost” 75 ballots, and people who doubt the machine’s accuracy are using it as fodder, even though Desersa and her staff believed it was human error from the beginning.

“I don’t want people thinking the machine is doing something wrong, because it was just off in this one precinct but was right on all the other 12 precincts,” Deputy Auditor Marcia Haukaas told South Dakota Searchlight last week.

Desersa encourages anyone who still has doubts about tabulators and their accuracy to come into her office so she can show them how the tabulators work and how the discrepancy happened.

“It’s not over. It’s been a nightmare,” Desersa said. “To me, it’s plain as day (that the machine is more accurate), but I know there are others that don’t see it that way and question it.”

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Makenzie Huber
Makenzie Huber

Makenzie Huber is a lifelong South Dakotan whose work has won national and regional awards. She's spent five years as a journalist with experience reporting on workforce, development and business issues within the state.

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