Three things to do TODAY to protect Wisconsin's November elections

MunicipalClerkinCyberspace_copy.jpgDon’t let anyone fool you: Even with paper ballots, Wisconsin’s elections are subject to the same big security risks that national experts warn about.

Our vote-counting software is manufactured and updated by secretive private corporations, from whom even Congress can’t get straight answers about internal security practices. Before and after every election, control of the software passes from vendor to county clerk to municipal clerk to polling place and back again—with no one in charge of overall security. None of our election officials have the expertise to oversee the updates and maintenance performed by the companies' technicians. Local election officials, bless their hearts, are so far from being IT sophisticates that most actually believe their voting machines will be 100% accurate as long as they never knowingly connect them to the Internet, and that pre-election voting machine tests can detect hacking designed to operate only on Election Day.

None of that would be a serious threat if Wisconsin's election officials used our paper ballots to detect and correct any miscounted vote totals. But they don’t. They certify the winners in Wisconsin elections without ever checking the Election-Night voting-machine tapes against the Election-Day ballots.

This doesn’t need to be the case. Wisconsin’s November 2018 elections could be much more secure than our previous ones, even with the technology we now have. This additional security can cost little or nothing more than we've spent on previous elections.

In brief: County and municipal clerks need to conduct simple voting-machine audits during the county canvass. They don’t do that now.

In about half the other states, local clerks routinely conduct some sort of voting-machine audits during the canvass—the period right after an election, before they declare results final. Some are more thorough than others, but Wisconsin clerks don’t do any at all

That is the biggest security hole in Wisconsin elections. Our local election officials trust the computers so completely that they don't even attempt to detect any Election-Day vote miscounts. If they do not detect them, they cannot correct them, and hackers or glitches win.

The good news is how easily and cheaply this hole can be patched. Statutes tell our county clerks and boards of canvass to review the election results before they certify them, but don’t prescribe specifics about how they are to do that. Wisconsin voters need to  demand that our county election officials choose rigorous canvass procedures, not sloppy or incomplete ones. 

What do good canvass procedures look like? That is, how does a county clerk check to see whether the voting machines counted correctly? Read on...

First, Make sure your county clerk understands: Voters want verified accuracy, and the clerk can open ballot bags during the canvass.

The first time you call your county clerk to say "This voter wants you to verify the results with an audit during the canvass," he or she will probably say, “I cannot do a hand-counted audit because I’m not allowed to open the ballot bags after they are sealed on Election Night.”

If that's the response you get, tell your county clerk to call the Wisconsin Elections Commission to get the facts. The WEC will tell them that if they carefully maintain the integrity of the ballots, they can use them to audit before they declare election results final.

Some clerks probably do genuinely believe they are prohibited from looking at the ballots. Others likely use it as an excuse to avoid work. Either way, that belief has no basis in statute, in practice, or in common sense. Local election clerks have opened ballot bags during the canvass many times in the past, and it’s an absurd idea that the legal custodian of a public record is forbidden to look at it.

If election officials continue to refuse to look at the paper ballots, Wisconsin’s elections are barely more secure than those in states that use paperless machines. 

Second, Contact the Wisconsin Elections Commission and encourage them to use the scheduled 2018 voting-machine audits to improve election security.

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The WEC can be contacted at any time and welcomes public comments. You can reach them via email at elections@wi.gov; phone at (608) 266-8005, or by tweeting to @WI_Elections.  Your message can be simple: tell them you want them to promote audits during the county canvass as proposed by Wisconsin Election Integrity. They know what to do.

National discussion of election security focuses on something called ‘risk-limiting auditing,’ or RLA. This is a very efficient process. The WEC is studying it, and it is almost certainly in Wisconsin’s future.  But the WEC will not have any RLA instructions ready for the November elections and few if any county clerks are willing to figure it out on their own. RLA in Wisconsin will have to wait until 2019 or later.

The good news is that since 2006, state law has required the state elections agency to order local clerks to check a few voting machines with hand-counted audits, following November elections. As done in past elections, these voting-machine audits have some good features and a few serious limitations. 

Just a few tweaks to the voting-machine audits planned for 2018 would give Wisconsin a start on the type of auditing that can protect our elections from interference:

  • The old instructions allowed the audits to be delayed until after election results were certified. For the 2018 voting-machine audits, the instructions should tell the clerks to audit during the county canvass, while errors can still be corrected.
  • In previous years, WEC randomly selected the voting machines in a way that left some counties with no audited machines. But because Wisconsin’s voting machines are programmed separately for each county, hackers might be deterred by auditing even one randomly-selection voting machine in each county. The WEC could select two machines in each of Wisconsin's 72 counties without ordering many more voting machine audits than they've done in the past (100, out of more than 3,500 machines.) Of course, increasing the sample size even more would improve security and voter confidence.
  • The old audit instructions told the hand counters to try to read the votes the same way the machines did. In 2018 WEC should tell them to count votes the same way they would in a recount, paying attention to voter intent rather than trying to match the machine’s totals.
  • The old instructions prescribe an inefficient hand-counting method that is very hard for observers to follow. The instructions for the 2018 audits should inform clerks about hand-counting methods that are more efficient and transparent.
  • Instructions for the 2018 voting-machine audits should stress that any clerks can use them anytime they want, even if they are not selected in WEC’s random sample.

These stopgap measures won't provide complete election security or solve any problems in the long run. Wisconsin voters would be justified in demanding a lot more. Voters in Colorado, New Mexico, Rhode Island, and Virginia now or will soon have their votes protected by valid audits that verify the correct winners. The measures described above—checking only two voting machines in each county—would be an embarrassing step backward in election security in many other states.

But they will provide more protection than Wisconsin votes get now. We need to demand at least that much for the November elections.

So call your county clerk. Say you want election audits during the canvass, and that you don’t want any more elections certified without checking for miscounts. Then call the Wisconsin Elections Commission and tell them to make the needed changes in the 2018 voting machine audits.

Third: Please help us get the word out to other Wisconsin voters by making a one-time donation to the publicity project.

This blog post is going to reach only a tiny fraction of Wisconsin voters. Most who it reaches already understand the problem. We've been trying to educate voters for five years now, with no budget--and little success. We've learned that to educate the not-yet-informed voters, we’re going to have to use paid media—things like mailers to community leaders and social media advertising. During June, we’re conducting a fund-raising drive to get this done. Please visit our fundraising page and contribute!

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WEC should order prompt audits in 2018

On Monday, June 4, Wisconsin Election Integrity submitted a proposal to WEC, suggesting a way they could mandate at least a few post-election audits without overstepping their current statutory authority.

If the Commission announces before the election that they will be ordering these audits during the county canvasses, they could deter hacking by putting would-be thieves on notice that the could be caught, a risk they do not now face.

In addition, the Commission could introduce local election officials to the practice of election auditing, which will need to be introduced into Wisconsin someday soon, if we are not to fall even farther behind recommended national practices.

We have asked the Commission to take this up at their June 11 meeting. I'll keep you posted here.

Here's the link to the letter.

 

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Election Security in 2 steps: 1) Paper ballots; 2) Audits

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Ask any Wisconsin official whether our elections are secure and you'll get this answer: "Our voting machines are never connected to the Internet; elections administration is decentralized; and the machines' designs were approved by the federal and state governments."

Go ahead—call your county clerk and ask. That is the answer you'll get. He or she sincerely believes those three safeguards protect Wisconsin elections.

Today, a consortium of national election-integrity groups released a new report: Securing the Nation’s Voting Machines: A Toolkit for Advocates and Election Officials.

Here's how many of the Wisconsin election officials' three favorite safeguards made the list recommended by the national authorities: None.

Here's why not:

  • Voting machines are and always will be programmed by fallible, corruptible humans. Anyone who develops or loads the software can manipulate the vote totals without the Internet.
  • You could hack into only one or two big counties' voting machines and swing a statewide election. In fact, county control of the voting machines might make hacking easier by increasing the number of vulnerable entry points. Besides, it's not really the local clerks who manage the machines anyway. It's three companies: Command Central, Dominion, and the biggest one, ES&S, which supplies the software that counts about 2 of every 3 Wisconsin votes.
  • Federal and state approval of the voting machines' original design cannot secure the machine that counts your votes. The software was copied and updated dozens of times before it reached  the machine in your polling place. No one ever inspects or approves the software that actually counts your votes.

What does protect elections: Paper ballots and audits.

Wisconsin has paper ballots, but not a single county clerk—not one—looks at those ballots before declaring election results final.

CobwebBallotBoxes-cropped.jpgAs long as our ballots are packed up on Election Night and kept under seal until they are destroyed 22 months later, Wisconsin elections are no safer than if we were using paperless touchscreen machines.

That's where Wisconsin's decentralized elections can help to protect our elections. State law gives every county clerk two weeks after a general elections—and more if they request it—to review the Election-Night results to make sure they are correct. The county clerks and their boards of canvass are free to adopt any review method they choose—it's up to them.

Any county or municipal clerk could, at any time he or she chooses, open the ballot bags and conduct a legitimate audit. It would be harder for municipal clerks, because they have only a week for review, and they certify only local races anyway. But county clerks have plenty of time to audit, and they certify the state and federal races—the ones most likely to be hacked.

Call your county clerk today and educate them. Tell them that the three safeguards they rely on are not really safeguards at all. Tell them to start—NOW—planning how they will verify the voting machines' Election-Day accuracy after future elections. If your county clerk doesn't know how, refer them to  Securing the Nation’s Voting Machines: A Toolkit for Advocates and Election Officials, which has a good list of pointers and resources. Write to your local newspaper to make sure they cover this story.

Then, keep calling your county clerk until you get the answer Wisconsin voters deserve: "Yes, we will make sure your votes were counted correctly before we declare election results final."

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Wisconsin has an election security problem. It's not the Russians.

Forget about whether Russians hacked election computers in 2016. We've got a bigger problem, and not much time to fix it. The November elections are less than six months away.

When the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC) talk about "election security", they talk only about the voter-registration system. WEC operates that system, and DHS can monitor it.

But the vote-counting system is separate. It resides on no computer that either of them can control, monitor, or inspect. It was outside their range of vision in 2016, and it’s outside their vision now. They don’t talk about voting-machine security because they don't know. 

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Wisconsin’s vote-counting computers are controlled, protected, and monitored by our local election clerks and by three companies—ES&S, Dominion, and Command Central. 

That's all. No one else.

Local election clerks have exactly the level of IT sophistication you think they do. County clerks send our vote-counting software off to Nebraska or Colorado or Minnesota to be reprogrammed for each new election, with no way to notice if it comes back carrying malicious code. A few counties use an application supplied by those companies to reprogram the software themselves. They put a plastic seal on it when they’re done.

Wisconsin’s local election clerks will happily leave a service technician alone with a voting machine or the county’s election-management computer, with no way to notice if he installs malicious code or a wireless communications card. They put a plastic seal on the voting machines for Election Day.

Go ahead—ask them. They seal the software. They seal the machines. They seal the paper ballots that they could use—but don’t—to check the machines’ Election-Day accuracy.

And what about where the real danger lies—within the voting-machine companies? How well does their security guard against external hackers and corrupt insiders?

The companies themselves might not understand IT security.  Professor Aviel Rubin of the Johns Hopkins University Information Security Institute checked with the major American voting-machine companies before the 2016 elections and discovered none employed “even one full-time trained expert in computer security.

Congress, too, has been frustrated in its attempts to get straight answers about the companies’ security practices.  When Congressman Ron Wyden tried to get answers from ES&S, he didn't get a response from anyone with 'security' in their job title. Instead, a Senior Vice President for Governmental Relations replied, saying “At ES&S, security is the responsibility of not just one, but all who elect to work for our company.”

This governmental-relations expert reassured Rep. Wyden that ES&S had asked DHS "if they had knowledge of any such security issues involving ES&S to which they responded that they did not." Well, whew.

ES&S—this company where every employee handles IT security and yet the vice president has to ask DHS to find out whether they've had a security breach—is the largest supplier of voting machines to Wisconsin. Just one of their machines—the DS200—counts more than 60% of Wisconsin's votes, including votes from Milwaukee, Dane, Waukesha, and La Crosse Counties.

We cannot make the voting machine companies hire IT security staff before we elect a governor and a US senator in November.

And we cannot make our local election officials into IT sophisticates, ever.

But we can put an end to the honor system. That is, we can force our local election officials to use the paper ballots to detect and correct any miscounts before they declare election results final. 

Our local election officials are the legal custodians of the paper ballots. They can unseal them anytime to count votes and make sure the voting machines counted right.  At any time before the 2018 midterms, our local election officials could learn about results-audit practices already in use in other states and bring them to Wisconsin.

Do these three things today:

  1. Contact WEC. Tell them to exercise leadership in getting county clerks to audit election results during the canvass. Tell them to use some of the federal HAVA funds; they’ll know what that is.
  2. Contact your county clerk. Say you want the county canvass to make sure the voting machines identified the right winners before they certify the election results. If they don't know how, tell them to contact the Election Verification Network or the Verified Voting Foundation.
  3. Contact your local newspaper editor. Tell him or her that you want to see local journalism take a sober look at voting-machine security right here in Wisconsin—and that doesn't mean writing about plastic seals.
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National report looks at Wisconsin election security--and nails it.

Being a normally flawed human, I cannot resist starting with as we have been saying for six years, Wisconsin's "failure to carry out post-election audits that test the accuracy of election outcomes leaves the state open to undetected hacking and other Election Day problems."  

WisconsinPatchwork.jpgBoom.

The Center for American Progress released what is probably to date the most complete, sensible and (judging by their Wisconsin appendix) accurate report on national election security.

In speaking about Wisconsin, the report concludes: "To protect its elections against potential attack by sophisticated nation-states seeking to interfere in U.S. elections, Wisconsin should adopt robust post-election audits that have binding effect on election results."

CAP researchers picked up on a feature of Wisconsin elections that in-state commentators have missed:

Problems with Wisconsin's election security, along with possible solutions, are not visible unless you look beyond the state level and into the counties and municipalities. 

Our state-level agency, the Wisconsin Elections Commission does not control the voting machines. They control only the systems that manage voter registration (WisVote) and that compile already-tabulated election results  (the Canvass Reporting System, or CRS). 

But the technology that counts Wisconsin's votes is owned and operated by counties and municipalities--not the State.

It is the local clerks, not the WEC, who are responsible for pre-election protective security and for the managerial measures that would detect and correct any Election-Day miscounts.

Not only is pre-election security managed by non-IT professionals, Wisconsin's entire vote-counting system lacks the ability even to detect miscounts, never mind correct them.

Wisconsin's local election officials--bless their hearts--are not IT sophisticates. Asked about the threat of hacking, most will say something like what Sheboygan County Clerk Jon Dobson recently wrote to me: "The equipment is never connected to the Internet, (so) unless someone has figured out a way to hack through the unit's power cord, our equipment is basically unhack-able."

Clerks like Mr. Dobson are not being disingenuous. They genuinely believe that if they cannot see a way to hack the vote-tabulating technology, no one else can, either. Their trust in the voting-machine companies is complete and sincere.

For their education in IT security, Mr. Dobson and his colleagues rely almost entirely on the commercial reassurances of the voting-machine companies. They don't seek the counsel of independent IT-security authorities who could explain the myriad number of ways an elections system can be compromised without Internet connection, particularly by insiders. 

Wisconsin's county clerks genuinely do not understand that elections software could be compromised by security lapses outside their vision or control--by the vendors, service companies, municipal clerks, and poll workers.

And as for Internet access, news hasn't yet reached them from their counterparts in Pennsylvania, who found that a voting machine company had installed unauthorized remote access capability on their election computers without their knowledge--something that computer-security professionals had been warning of for years. Like the Wisconsin clerks, the Pennsylvania clerks had been blithely assuring reporters that voting machines were never connected to the Internet--without having checked. When I publicly asked him whether he ever checked Dane County's machines for such unauthorized alterations, Clerk Scott McDonell said that the vendors had told him that would void the machines' warranty so no, he doesn't check. He is not fooling when he says he truly believes the machines to be so very secure that he can doesn't have to check their accuracy before he declares election results final.

And that, fellow voters, is the level of IT naïvete that stands between motivated international hackers and our voting rights.

But we have to be realistic about what we can expect from local election officials. As Prof. Dan Wallach of the Rice University Computer Science Department explained, "You would not expect your local police department to be able to repel a foreign military power."

What we can expect of our local election officials--particularly our county clerks--is that they use the authority and resources already provided by Wisconsin law to manually check accuracy of the computer-tabulated vote totals before they certify election results final.

The only protection can come from using our paper ballots to check the machines' Election-Day accuracy.

That's the solution that 26 states already have in place, with varying degrees of rigor.

It's the solution that we've been advocating for the past six years.

It's the solution that the 2014 Presidential Commission on Elections Administration recommended.

It's the solution that Rep. Mark Pocan wisely wrote into his proposed federal legislation.

And it's the solution that the CAP report recommended for Wisconsin.

Wisconsin reporters and editors need to pick up on it now, too. They need to start asking county clerks the same hard questions about their security practices that they have been asking the WEC about theirs: How do you detect whether the technology worked as intended on Election Day? Do your security and recovery procedures meet national standards? What plans do you have in place for recovery if they fail?

Voters can ask, too. Pick up the phone. Call your county clerk. Get the facts right from him or her. Ask: "At the moment when you sign that certificate declaring the election results to be correct and true, what specifically have you done to verify that the voting machines counted correctly on Election Day?"

Among the 72 county election authorities in this state, not a one will answer: "I follow federal recommendations and conduct a valid post-election audit."

Not one.

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Jump on this chance to improve Wisconsin election security!

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Friday, March 30, 2018 - In defense of our right to self-government, please contact the Wisconsin Elections Commission in the next few days to tell them: Include routine election auditing in Wisconsin's application for federal election-security funding.

Chances like this don't come along very often. Congress sits on its hands for years, ignores problems, messes around, and then--when an issue is hot--throws some money at the states and says "Spend it quick!"

When that happens, states need to be able to grab the money and spend it on something worthwhile.

That is just what has happened with election security. Voters have been warning, shouting, complaining, and worrying for years about the dangers of poorly managed election technology, and then all of a sudden Congress awoke and leapt out of bed. (Thank you, Vladimir!) Last Friday, Congress passed a federal budget bill that includes $380 million for grants to the states for improving election security.*

Just short of $7 million of that is earmarked for Wisconsin--pending the Wisconsin Elections Commission's submission of a plan for spending it.

Thirteen states should definitely spend their money to replace unauditable voting machines--the kind that don't use or create a paper record of each ballot. But that's not Wisconsin's problem. Paperless vote-counting computers have always been illegal here.

Wisconsin's big election-security hole--where we lag most other states--is not that our elections are unauditable. Wisconsin elections are simply unaudited.

Wisconsin is in relatively good shape on most other aspects of election security. The WEC has done a good job with those systems they control, which are the voter-registration system and the 'canvass reporting system,' the automated system that counties use to report results they have already counted and certified. In addition to having respectable security, both these systems also have effective backup in case of manipulation or failure. With same-day registration at the polls, hackers have to ask themselves how much effort they are going to waste deleting Wisconsin voters' registrations when we will be able immediately to vote anyway, with only about five minutes' re-registration inconvenience. And the canvass reporting system kicks in only after our votes have already been counted in the polling places and municipal clerks' offices. Any hacking of that would be easily detectable and reversible, even without a serious audit effort.

But Wisconsin has no more security for our voting machines than any other state that uses paper ballots, and a paper trail is merely decorative if the ballots are sealed on Election Night and never seen again.

Our elections' biggest unprotected vulnerability is that our county boards of canvass make a habit of declaring election results final without lifting a finger to check to see whether the vote-counting computers counted our votes correctly. That practice is justifiably illegal in 25 states (26 if you count D.C.) and contrary to every national election authority's recommendation.

The practical solution: Wisconsin law provides county election officials with paper ballots and allows them to check accuracy before they certify, but they choose not to. The problem isn't time or money. Wisconsin's county clerks have as much time for the canvass as their counterparts in states that do audit, and modern election-audit methods are so efficient they could almost be funded from petty cash.

So we can only guess why our county officials continue to force us to trust our franchise to unaudited computer output--something they wouldn't tolerate for a millisecond from their banks and ATMs. My best guess is that they've been allowed to ignore that basic managerial responsibility for so long that they fear they will find a host of problems when they start to look. Look at the panic this county official exhibited as she refused an observer's request for verification during the 2016 recount. That level of distress looks to me like she knew the machines' unreliability would be revealed if she allowed verification, so she refused to hand count "even five ballots." And she was right: the machines were, in fact, miscounting and were later decertified by the Wisconsin Elections Commission.

What voters need to do:
Contact the WEC and tell them that you want them to include funding for routine audits during the county canvass in Wisconsin's federal grant application. WEC staff are up to date on national election-administration trends, and I believe they understand the need for, and practicality of, routine election audits. In addition, I sense that WEC Commissioners are favorably disposed to effective election audits and will do the right thing if enough citizens express interest and support.  

You can:

  • Tweet to @WI_Elections to say that you want to see county election audits in the application for federal funding;
  • Email Chair Mark Thomsen and Administrator Meagan Wolfe at elections@wi.gov.
  • Snail-mail them at Wisconsin Elections Commission,  P.O. Box 7984, Madison, Wisconsin 53707-7984, with copies to U.S. Election Assistance Commission, 1335 East West Highway, Suite 4300, Silver Spring, MD 20910, and to Jill Lau, Chair, Wisconsin County Clerks Association, 421 Nebraska St, Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin  54235.

If you want to do more, you can use these web-contact forms to tell Senator Baldwin, Senator Johnson, and the US Election Assistance Commission that they, too, should encourage the WEC to seek funds for election auditing in Wisconsin.

Also, please, tell other voters about this so that they, too, can weigh in for election audits. The WEC hardly ever gets any citizen input on election security issues, and they will definitely sit up and take notice if they get a lot now. So go for it!

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* It would be unfair to accuse every member of Congress of inaction. Wisconsin's very own Mark Pocan introduced an excellent elections-security bill, the Secure America's Future Elections (SAFE) Act a year ago. As other representatives wake up to the issue, it's still collecting new co-sponsors. If you live outside Wisconsin's Second Congressional District, contact your congressperson today and ask them to sign on. If  you live in Rep. Pocan's district, tell him "Thank you!"

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Wisconsin's county clerks need a better story

Main point: Wisconsin's elections officials have been telling themselves a simple story--"The only threat to election results is Internet hacking, so we can keep elections safe just by keeping the voting machines unconnected."

There's an equally simple--but more true--story they could be telling themselves: "We don't have the power to prevent every type of miscount, but we can keep elections safe anyway by using the paper ballots to detect and correct miscounts, regardless of cause."


In a recent newspaper article, I wrote that election officials should check the accuracy of our computer-tabulated election results as routinely as city treasurers check our computer-tabulated property tax bills.

That proposal is uncontroversial. Every national election expert promotes routine audits. So do other authorities, such as the US Department of Homeland Security. When presented with the idea that election clerks should verify the right winners before they declare election results final, every voter responds with either “Well, duh” or a wide-eyed “You mean they don’t do that now?!?!”

Wisconsin election officials, however, think that all of us are wrong about that. In response to my article, I received the following email from the county clerk in a mid-sized Wisconsin county:

OnlyHackers-Closeup.jpg"Good afternoon, Ms. McKim: Please tell me if a piece of Wisconsin certified equipment has ever been hacked, or how one could even attempt to hack said equipment.  The equipment used in my county is never connected to the Internet. It's not even connected to our county network. Unless someone has figured out a way to hack through the unit's power cord, our equipment is basically unhackable."

Except for that last word, my correspondent’s few facts are correct. It's the same argument that county clerks have used for years. Let’s review a few additional facts. You won’t need to be an IT security expert or a Russian hacker to see the possibilities...

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Take Back the Vote! National Voting Rights Task Force conference this weekend

NVRTFLogo.jpgThis weekend, election integrity advocates from around the nation will gather in California to share information and ideas for moving America ahead toward fully protected voting rights--including the right to have our votes counted accurately.

The Second Annual National Election Integrity Conference, sponsored by a host of organizations, will convene in Berkeley on Saturday.

The entire conference will be livestreamed on Facebook, and videos of the presentations will go up later on the YouTube  channel for the California Election Integrity Coalition.

I (Karen McKim) will be doing two workshops, one with Jan BenDor of the Michigan Election Reform Association, on the lessons from the Wisconsin and Michigan recounts, and one on the auditing election results with digital ballot images. (The materials I'll be distributing are at those links.)

 

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Election officials give us only reassurance. We want security.

Main point: Public officials must keep the public both safe and calm.
The danger is when reassurance, not safety, becomes the goal.
Election officials are keeping our voter registration system safe.
They are reassuring us about our vote-counting system.

What voters need: “Smile, you son of a bitch.” – Martin Brody, to the shark.

jaws_brody.jpgYesterday’s Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC) meeting was packed with more cameras than I’d ever seen there. A few days earlier, the federal Department of Homeland Security announced that Russian-government backed hackers had tested the security of Wisconsin’s online voter registration system. They hadn’t gotten in. The ‘attack’ was, the computer experts say, like jiggling a locked door knob.

“I don’t get it.” I told a reporter as the meeting got under way. “What's the news here? Hackers are continuously testing every computer system. The Russian government is known for cybercrime. It would be news if they were not testing the security of our elections systems.”

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WEC acknowledges machines can miscount, decertifies a voting machine

There’s good news and there’s … no-worse-than-usual news.

The good news is that today, the Wisconsin Elections Commission did what no Wisconsin elections agency has done since the introduction of computerized vote tabulation: They decertified a voting machine, the Optech Eagle.

EagleGoodbye.jpgAnd they did it for the best of reasons: It wasn’t counting our votes reliably. Now that so many ballots are marked in voters' homes, in all sorts of ink, the machine is "no longer meeting voters' and officials' expectations."

This is good. Not perfect, but good. The vote was unanimous. The Commissioners didn't debate whether the machine should be decertified, but how quickly.  They didn’t vote to decertify immediately, but they soberly considered that possibility. And they did adopt some immediate safeguards.

As of today, all municipalities using the Optech Eagle must either count mailed-in ballots by hand, or re-make (that is, copy over) them using ink that can be detected by the machines. And they must keep doing that until they replace the machines, no later than December 31, 2018. In addition, if any contest tabulated by an Optech Eagle is recounted, it must be by a hand count.

This decision had several good angles to it.

First, the Commissioners’ comments, specifically mentioning Racine County, indicated that they accepted as true the reports of Liz Whitlock and the other observers during that recount, even though Racine County officials have not yet acknowledged any problems.

Granted, it would have taken chutzpah for the Commissioners actively to deny that Racine miscounted both the election and the recount, given all the hard evidence of similar miscounts from other counties and the weirdly high undervote rates that county's canvass signed off on. But the culture of election officials, in Wisconsin and elsewhere, is to band together against concerned citizens and, if not to deny their truth, at least ignore it.  But in the discussion today, I did not pick up one whiff of the get-these-troublesome-citizens-out-of-here attitude to which we’re so accustomed. Good work, Liz and the rest of the Racine team! The State hears you, even if your clerk doesn't (yet).

Second, the ‘requirement’ that any recount be conducted by hand shows more courage and commitment than I’ve seen from any public official in a while. Here’s why: If some county decides to contest that requirement, it’s likely that a court would decide that the WEC has no statutory authority to order a hand-counted recount. The Commissioners were aware of that when they voted, but went ahead anyway. Set aside the fact that recounts are a thing of the past in Wisconsin; I like the kind of leadership that says, “Let’s do the right thing and see if anyone tries to stop us.”

Third, the decision signifies a distinct break from the old Government Accountability Board’s attitude toward elections technology. The old GAB—board and staff—seemed resistant to even the idea that voting machines could miscount. I remember talking with them about the Medford miscount, when misprogrammed machines ignored all straight-party ticket votes. About a third of that city’s votes in a presidential election were lost. GAB staff told me, with a pained expression, “You can’t blame that on the machines!”, as if I would hurt the machine’s feelings if it heard me say it needed to be audited. I can so easily imagine the old GAB Director Kevin Kennedy defending the Optech Eagle with such an argument.

But WEC Director Michael Haas and the Commissioners are willing to take a stand: A machine that cannot count a valid vote has got to go.

I know I may be giving WEC credit for understanding the obvious, but it is a change from the way they were talking only two years ago. And that's good.

The no-worse-than-usual news is, well, unsurprising.

  • The staff analysis of decertification stressed cost and convenience for clerks above all other considerations—to the point where I sat there seriously trying to think of how we could frame the risk of undetected election fraud as a cost issue.

  • No one ever has investigated or resolved the causes of the worst Optech Eagle miscount. The WEC is just guessing it was the wrong ink. In Marinette, three voting machines missed 9.6%, 26.5%, and 30.8% of the votes on the ballots they processed. It's almost certain that ink had something to do with it, but if the voters marked their ballots at home, why did one section of town use unreadable ink at more than three times the rate of another part of town? And to add to the mystery, the municipal clerk told me that most of the absentee ballots in all three precincts were in-person early voters who marked their ballots in her office. Why would she provide the wrong pen at all, never mind provide it at different rates to the voters from the different precincts? Finally, in the one municipality where WEC staff did do a serious investigation of the cause of an Optech Eagle miscount, they couldn't pin it entirely on ink. Something else was going on with those machines, and remaking the ballots might not fix it. 

  • Director Michael Haas, on at least two occasions today, referred respectfully to our testimony, and clearly understood what we were saying. But when he spoke most directly to the prospect of future routine election audits, he called it a ‘legislative issue.’ To me, that revealed his perception that Wisconsin’s local election clerks will not agree to verify election results unless forced by law. He’s probably correct, but that’s pretty darn sad. Thank goodness few other public officials take the same attitude toward their work product.

  • In my oral testimony, I cited several instances in which county boards of canvass certified obviously incorrect vote totals. I also spoke of the hard fact that none ever verify the vote totals before they certify. Sure enough, like a patellar reflex, the municipal clerk who spoke next offered indignant testimony: “We do too care about accuracy,” without offering any facts to back up that claim.

    Sigh. I suppose ‘care’ has several meanings, and I don’t doubt that she “feels concern or interest.“ But it’s also a simple fact that, until she routinely verifies the numbers on the computer tape before certifying them, she does not “exercise serious attention or effort to avoid damage or risk.”

    So, WEC's attitude toward election accuracy is improving. But the local election officials still haven't mastered Step 1: Accept that you have a problem.
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