Demand Better-Than-Nothing audits for Wisconsin election results!

The best thing to do now
for the November elections:
Tell WEC: "Give us better-than-nothing
voting-machine audits in 2018!"

Just two tweaks to WECs' audit policy
could make Wisconsin’s November 2018 elections
the most secure since we started counting our votes with computers.

After six years of inaction on citizen calls for election auditing, there's still time before the November elections for the Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC) to put a temporary patch on the state’s biggest, most dangerous election-security hole.

They don’t need to spend an extra penny over what they are already planning to spend. The WEC has to change only one policy at their September 25 meeting.

But voters have to speak up--now. We must tell the WEC to revise their methods for the 2018 voting-machine audits and order those audits to be completed in every county before election results are declared final. The WEC can be reached at (608) 266-8005 or by e-mail at elections@wi.gov.

SealedBallotBags.jpgTHE PROBLEM

 There’s no reason for the biggest hole in Wisconsin election security. We have paper ballots. And local officials have up to two weeks after each election to review (‘canvass’) them to make sure the results are correct before they declare the official winners (‘certify’).

But they don’t. Wisconsin election clerks seal our paper ballots in bags on Election Night. During the canvass, they look only at the voting machines’ printed totals and say, “Look who won!” Then they certify. They swear the winners into office. Twenty-two months later, they destroy the ballots.

Perpetually sealed paper ballots do not deter hackers; they protect them.

About half the states require officials to do at least a little auditing of the Election-Day results before they certify. But in Wisconsin, state law merely allows, but does not require, accuracy checks.

So why don’t the local clerks choose to check? If they have a choice, why do they risk signing a statement that swears they’ve reviewed the results and found them to be correct--when they haven’t done that?

Because our local election officials genuinely, completely trust the computers. When I ask why they don't check Election-Day accuracy, I get answers like, "If we had to count votes manually, that would defeat the purpose of using the machines," and "If these machines were capable of miscounting, the State wouldn't let us use them." And "We did a recount before and didn't find that election had been hacked." The people who manage our voting machines don't believe they can be hacked. Or that they can malfunction. Or that humans sometimes make programming errors.

THE SOLUTION

HandsCountingStackofBallots.jpg Since 2006, Wisconsin statutes have required the state elections agency to order voting-machine audits following November elections. That law, section 7.08(6) of the statutes, also orders local governments to do any audits the WEC tells them to do.

As is typical for laws like this, the statute leaves the details to the bureaucrats. How many voting machines to audit? When to audit? How to select the sample? Those decisions are left to the state elections agency.

But state elections officials have always denied the risk of an Election-Day hack. They're so confident, they don't think anyone needs to watch for it. So they have followed that law only minimally. They've never ordered the type of audits that would protect final election results from hackers. 

The WEC will be tweaking their voting-machine audit instructions soon, as they always do in even-numbered years, and we voters have got to make sure they do it right this time.

We must demand two things.

First, the 2018 audit instructions need to tell local officials “Finish the audits during the county canvass so that you can correct any hacks or errors you might find.”

From 2006 through 2012, the State told local officials to wait to check accuracy until after they had certified the results. In 2014, state elections board members ordered their staff to stop prohibiting on-time audits. But they have never ordered timely audits—they merely stopped prohibiting them.

Second, we must demand that the WEC order audits of at least one voting machine in each county. More would be better, of course, but they’ve budgeted for only 100 voting-machine audits, and Wisconsin has 72 counties.

The sample selection method used in previous years is too odd to explain here. It has to do with making sure the sample contains each make and model of voting machine. The critical fact is that it has always left some counties out.

Wisconsin’s voting machines are, in all but a few counties, programmed at the county level. For the federal, state, and county races, the same vote-counting code is copied onto all the voting machines in a county. So there’s a good chance you could deter hackers by randomly selecting one machine in each county.

The best audit would, of course, include enough ballots to produce a statistically valid answer to “Are these the right winners?” But Wisconsin officials’ foot-dragging on election auditing has brought us down to the wire in 2018. Valid, respectable audits will probably need to wait until 2020. Until then, we need quick, better-than-nothing audits.

About cost: Funding for around 100 voting machine audits has already been budgeted--or should have been. Unless they increase the sample size, the WEC can order protective audits for the same price they are planning to pay for useless ones.

Just those two tweaks to WECs' audit policy, and Wisconsin’s November 2018 elections will be the most secure in our state’s history since we started counting our votes with computers. They will be the first in which would-be hackers were put on notice: Any voting machine anywhere in the state might be randomly selected for an audit while there is still time to detect your mess and clean it up.

So:  We must tell the WEC to order voting-machine audits in every county, and that they be completed before November 2018 election results are declared final.

This topic should be on their September 2018 meeting agenda.

The WEC can be reached at (608) 266-8005 or by e-mail at elections@wi.gov.

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