The investigation of the 2014 Stoughton referendum miscount that I, Julie Crego, and Sue Trace did in 2015, in collaboration with Stoughton Municipal Clerk Lana Kropf, was recognized as "helpful" by the Civic Design Project, a joint effort of the User Experience Professionals Association and the Center for Civic Design.
They recommended a post from this blog to civic design professionals working in elections as "useful" because it "discusses the causes of incorrectly counted votes by paper ballot scanner and provides suggestions for proper ballot design and election day procedures to help prevent miscount errors."
When the legislature voted to abolish the old Government Accountability Board in December 2015, it’s hard to describe how very low my expectations were for its replacement, the Wisconsin Elections Commission. Against unified opposition from citizens and media, Republican legislators destroyed our nationally admired nonpartisan panel of retired judges and replaced them with a panel of appointees selected in an openly partisan process. Independents like me have no representatives on the new Commission, nor do any third-party voters. I thanked my lucky stars that Wisconsin law still gives most direct responsibility for election accuracy to the counties. For the new WEC, I allowed myself to do no more than hope their designed-to-deadlock structure would keep them from making very many bad decisions.
Today I sat through a full-day meeting of the WEC. They made decisions regarding maintenance of the voter registration lists and certification of a redesigned voting-machine system. They discussed how to move ahead with electronic poll books. They reviewed the results of the latest round of voting-machine audits.
I saw no harm done. I saw no deadlocked decisions. I saw a few differences of opinion, but no naïve observer could have picked out the Republican appointees from the Democratic. And, Lord help me, as I observed them holding a voting-machine vendor’s feet to the fire about some less-than-user-friendly features of new voting-machine software, I found myself thinking, “I don’t remember the old GAB being this willing and able to stick up for the voters.”
Before anyone thinks I’ve gone soft, there are things I think they could be doing better. For example, while their desire to stand up for voters’ ability to cast valid votes was evident, an equal desire for evidence that those votes are counted accurately—in every election, recount or no—is not yet visible. But the members of the old GAB were only a little farther ahead in their interest in bringing routinely verified accuracy to Wisconsin election results, so we’re no worse off.
But back to the good news. The presence of two bona fide former election clerks on the new Commission—Beverly Gill, former Burlington municipal clerk, and Julie Glancy, former Sheboygan County Clerk—seems to be keeping it real when discussion turns to questions of how things will play out in the polling place.
For example, it was the former election clerks who really put the ES&S representatives through their paces in the demonstration of a new electronic ballot-marking device. Knowing how often voters are unclear about Wisconsin’s open partisan primary ballot, they made sure the ES&S representatives demonstrated that the machine worked for naïve voters without causing confusion or irritating delay. It didn’t. I won’t describe the problems, because I don’t need to. The Commissioners voted to certify the system only on the condition that the problems were fixed. In their discussion, I saw nothing but concern for the voters’ ability easily to cast a valid ballot. Zero partisanship. (To be fair, the Commissioner who looks to be most partisan based on his resume full of party offices wasn’t there today.)
In other actions, the Commission discussed the current effort to update the voter-registration lists by sending postcards to people who had not voted for four years and ‘deactivating’ those who did not respond. Their questions of staff revealed sincere concern about the possibility of purging legitimate voters as a result of the statutorily-required maintenance effort. They asked detailed questions about how many registrations would likely be deactivated, why, and for whom, and gave staff instructions about information they want to see in the report when the project is complete.
And when staff gave them the news that one older-model voting machine, the Optech Eagle, was discovered in both the recount (Marinette County) and in the voting-machine audits (Outagamie County) to have missed a significant number of votes in November's election, the Commissioners did not miss a beat before discussing decertification. Decertification would force the 140 municipalities that still use the machine immediately to replace it, and staff had not raised that possibility. Instead, staff described their efforts to get local election officials to use a work-around for the ballots most at risk of being miscounted, and to coax the municipalities into replacing the machines. That wasn’t enough for the Commissioners, who instructed staff to prepare a memo on a possible decertification plan for their next meeting, in September.
I'll soon get back to poking and prodding about bringing 21st-century elections verification practices to Wisconsin, and I won't go too much longer (right now, in fact) before I point out that I shuddered a little when the Commissioners accepted a flat "No" from the ES&S vice president in response to "Have any of your machines ever been hacked?"
In my happy dreams, the Commissioners would have responded to that evidence-free boast by asking "How do you know?" To which the honest answer would be, "We don't, really, because most states, like Wisconsin, don't check." And then the Commission would get Colorado or the Election Verification Network on the phone and get to work on promoting routine county canvass procedures that verify accuracy instead of just trusting in it.
Well, enough of that. Tonight, I'm pretty happy that this looks like a Commission that can probably give it some good thought when they get around to it.
Over the past five years, I’ve read every commercial media story I could find regarding election technology. Sadly, that has not been a big job. Few reporters ever mentioned the risks, and those who did tended to interview only election officials. The typical news item would hint ‘some are concerned’ and then quote some official saying “We see no evidence of problems.” The question of whether the officials had been monitoring for problems--or whether they even knew how to--was left unasked and unanswered.
But recently, I am noticing progress in commercial news media’s coverage of the risks of elections technology. America’s reporters are catching up with millions of citizens and all IT professionals. They are realizing that computerized elections have risks, and that IT experts understand those risks better than election officials do.
That's not the only recent improvement. Some reporters have noticed the solution, too. This morning I saw a news story in national mainstream media that went beyond hand-wringing over the risks and mentioned routine election verification.
Under the headline If Voting Machines Were Hacked, Would Anyone Know?, NPR’s Pamela Fessler gave listeners the answer: No. Then instead of musing about hypothetical alternate technologies, she finished the piece with a plug for routine election audits. A few weeks ago, the Atlantic also had a good article focusing on election audits, with the subtitle "A low-tech solution to America’s voting problems."
Don't get me wrong. We are still not seeing the sort of explanatory or investigative journalism that our elections deserve. But things are looking up. Commercial journalists have finally found the phone numbers of election-technology experts. In recent weeks, Reuters turned to the University of Michigan’s Alex Halderman and ABC News quoted the University of Iowa’s Douglas W. Jones.
Even a city reporter, Kristian Torres of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, now knows to pick up the phone to interview Princeton’s cybersecurity expert, Edward W. Felten, when she has questions about elections technology. A local lawsuit there challenged Georgia's failure to preserve an auditable paper trail.
But when the same opportunity (that is, renowned experts explaining the local angle on a topic of national interest) presented itself to Wisconsin journalists, they missed the opportunity. Last November, when three crème de la crème national experts testified in Dane County Court, Wisconsin reporters focused on mundane, predictable angles, such as the cost of the recount.
The currently trending issue--Russian hacking--might blow over, but I don't think the improvement in reporters' understanding of the larger issues will fade. National-beat journalists are truly waking up to this issue. So it's only a matter of time before state and local journalists, too, bring some gravitas to their reporting on the topic.
I'm optimistic that we will see fewer formulaic stories approvingly quoting a clerk saying "It's all good because we have no evidence of miscounts." I'm looking forward to seeing more actual IT experts quoted.
And I can't wait to hear Wisconsin officials' answers after the next election when for the first time they face a reporter who asks, "Got it--no evidence of hacking. Now can you show us the evidence of accuracy?"
In brief: Our election officials tell us that every single valid vote and not one single invalid vote should be counted. But if you watch closely, you’ll notice that election officials tend to tolerate any size or type of miscount unless it seems to affect the outcome.
Well, which is it? Do we want 100% accuracy, or do we want only approximate election results that probably identify the right winner? Until we face the need for clear and consistent standards, we cannot hold our election officials to any.
(Updated with additional information from a June 2017 report from WEC staff--see end of blog post.)
During the 15 years I supervised investigations for Wisconsin’s legislative oversight agency, I learned the value of several specific thinking skills. One was to be clear about expectations.
Auditors call them ‘standards’. Investigations start when someone reports that something is not as it should be. A good investigator’s first step is to figure out: What is it that should be? What would things look like if everything was working right?
If, for example, the complaint is “This permitting process takes too long”, we need to know how long people expect it to take.
This habit of noticing standards—or their absence--spilled over into the rest of my life. It's useful. You probably know that you’re less likely to be swayed by a salesperson if you’ve already decided how much you want to spend before you set foot in the store.
And standards keep us heading in the right direction. As the Cheshire Cat told Alice, which way you need to go from here depends a good deal on where you want to get to.
The way things are now, however, paying close attention to the standards we set for our elections can make a person dizzy.Read more
The New York Times has published a good article about the Volkswagen fraud. In brief, Volkswagen put fraudulent emissions-control software in its autos. The cars passed government tests for years, all the while spewing pollution in real-world use.
That happened. There’s nothing hypothetical about it.
It shows us what corporations can do with the computers they sell to us.
Now consider these facts:
- Only three companies' computers count 80% of America's votes. One of them, (ES&S) counts about 50%.
- More people have more motive to manipulate elections than anyone has to manipulate auto emissions.
- IT-naïve local election officials are less capable of detecting fraud in pre-election tests than air-quality regulators are capable of detecting fraud in emissions-control tests.
And the government tests didn't even catch it. The hack was discovered by graduate students who bought a car and tested it on the road.
But in elections, no one can perform a real-world voting-machine test. Voting machine companies and election officials maintain too much secrecy.
We have to be honest with ourselves. Local election officials—bless their hearts—will never be able to manage or test their computers well enough to deter or detect any fraudulent software. At least not before the polls close.
We must demand that our election officials do what every other computer-dependent manager does: Check their computers’ output for accuracy while there is still time to correct any errors. Nothing else can protect our right to self-government from computer fraud and error.
We need genuine, reliable outcome-confirming audits of our election results, and we need them NOW.
And no, we do not want to wait, like auto regulators did, until some grad students discover that our software has been hacked for years.
Two days after the April 4 election, 37 voters released the following open letter to Dane County officials, urging them to seek assistance from national experts and implement professional-quality election verification to build confidence in Dane County elections.
If you would like to be contacted to participate in any future actions such as this open letter, please email your contact information to WiscElectionIntegrity@gmail.com. You do not need to live in Dane County; we are working on growing our efforts in other Wisconsin counties, too.
April 6, 2017
An Open Letter to Dane County Executive, Supervisors, and County Clerk
regarding the continuing need for verified accurate election results
We recently read that Dane County will be posting ballot images online after the county canvass has declared election results final. To our knowledge, no other county in the nation is routinely doing this. The stated purpose is desirable: to “provide a level of confidence and faith in our electoral process that has been undermined by unfounded accusations of fraud or meddling.”
We agree that confidence in our elections is vital, and that posting ballot images to the Internet won’t hurt.
But please be aware: It will not guarantee accurate election results. Only official, valid verification during the county canvass can do that.
Let’s take a sober look at why ‘allegations of fraud or meddling’ are so persistent. Set computer-generated election results aside for a moment and think instead about computer-generated property tax bills. Imagine that property owners had no way to check for themselves that those bills were correct. Now imagine that:
- The city never checked the accuracy of the electronically calculated property tax bills until after payments were made;
- In that belated verification, the city never checked the accuracy of more than two neighborhood’s bills, and did not do that until after the city no longer had any authority to make refunds;
- Whenever people questioned a property tax bill, the city followed a policy like elections’ recount policy. That is, only one or two taxpayers had standing to demand verification, and if they suspected an error any larger than one-quarter of one percent, they had to pay the full cost of the audit, in cash, before the audit could start; and
- Finally, when national authorities began to encourage vigilance and the taxpayers’ demands for verification could no longer be ignored, the city posted assessment records on the Internet so that citizens could do the auditing themselves.
It's easy to see that this city’s residents would rapidly be expressing suspicions of fraud, suspicions that would not go away until the city began to verify the accuracy of the computers’ output. It is basic human nature: managerial refusal to audit creates suspicion. Managers who verify accuracy build confidence.
Without routine, official audits during the county canvass, we will have persistent suspicions and unrefuted allegations. With them, we will have voter confidence.
Posting the ballot images on the Internet does not protect our elections, for several reasons. Most importantly, volunteer citizen auditors cannot credibly perform a governmental responsibility such as verifying election results. Even if they could, Dane County has no written procedures for compiling, handling, and storing the digital ballot images, so they are not suitable for auditing. Finally, the County is not providing citizens with workable software to view the ballot images. The clerk’s office failed in a February 2015 attempt to unzip and save even two precincts’ ballots with enough accuracy to support a valid audit. Those of you who have attended demonstrations conducted by the Wisconsin Election Integrity Action Team know that workable open-source software, designed specifically for election auditing with digital images, is available and has been offered at no cost to the county clerk many times.
Concern about undetected electronic fraud is no longer the province of crackpots and ‘sore losers.’ Risks are now so credible that the federal government is suggesting elections technology be protected as critical infrastructure. Claims that any county’s system is immune from tampering are not credible. The additional risk of inadvertent miscounts is not hypothetical after the 2014 Stoughton referendum miscount.
Local jurisdictions in other states are implementing modern, efficient election-verification methods. Reputable national experts offer free consultation and assistance through the Election Verification Network. Because other states have moved ahead of Wisconsin in this area, we could learn from their experience. Counties in California and Colorado in particular are making great progress in building voter confidence by adopting a technique known as risk-limiting auditing, endorsed in 2014 by the Presidential Commission on Elections Administration.
On April 4, Dane County voters cast their ballots in one more election that will be declared final on the basis of unverified computer output. Nothing more than a two-machine spot check is planned after that. Don’t let Dane County fall farther behind. We urge you to intervene with the Dane County Clerk and Board of Canvassers to urge them to begin to build voter confidence with routine, valid, professional-quality verification of election results during the county canvass process.
The following supporters of the Wisconsin Election Integrity Action Team:
Barbara Wright, Madison;
Sue & Steve Trace, Deforest;
Dace Zeps, Madison;
Nate Timm, Mazomanie;
Al Sulzer, Cross Plains;
Gary Storck, Madison;
John Stanley, Deforest;
David Schwab, Madison;
Gary Tipler, Madison;
Martina Rippon, Madison;
Alice & David Schneiderman, Madison;
Margaret Rigney, Deforest;
Susan Phillips, Sun Prairie;
Grant Petty, Madison;
Michael Olneck, Madison;
Keith Nelson, Westport;
Jim Mueller; Algoma, fmr Middleton
Jennifer Miller, Madison;
Dave Knutzen, Waunakee;
Karen McKim, Westport
Peter Johnson, Madison;
Jon Hain, Madison;
Adam Grabski, Mazomanie;
Janice Gibeau, Stoughton;
Nila Frye, Waunakee;
Harriet & Ronald Dinerstein; Madison;
Karen Edson, Deforest;
Bob & Julie Crego, Middleton;
Damian Christianson, Fitchburg;
Joanne E. Brown, Madison;
Andrew Bersch, Madison;
Laurene Bach, Waunakee;
Rebecca Alwin, Middleton
Usually, when you offer an idea and it gets shot down, you don't like it. But at yesterday's meeting of the Election Integrity Action Team, I offered a suggestion and Jake's destruction of it was so trenchant and good I have to share it.
We were talking about a revised objective for our group. Maybe we've been aiming too high, I said, by promoting risk-limiting audits during the county canvass. Maybe we need to pursue nothing more ambitious than getting municipal and county canvasses to perform basic reasonability tests, to stop certifying election results that flat-out don't make sense on their face.
I reviewed the evidence: The recount revealed that county canvasses had certified nonsensical election results all around the state. For the certified results from the City of Marinette to be true, 304 early voters would have had to have decided not to mark any votes on their ballots. Eau Claire County officials had certified 306 votes from a ward with 263 voters. If the results Oneida County officials certified from Hazelhurst were true, more than 52% of the voters there had cast blank ballots. Milwaukee County officials certified a 40% blank ballot rate in one urban ward. If you believe the election results certified by Dane County officials, the lily-white upscale suburb of Waunakee was the state's biggest hotbed of support for Cherunda Fox, a black woman from Detroit who ran for president on a platform of reparations for slavery and imprisoning the "Clinton crime family."
Our election officials are nowhere near ready, I argued, to understand the auditing recommendations of the Presidential Commission on Election Administration. They need first to understand their middle school math teacher's advice to check their work for obvious errors before handing it in.
I thought I made a pretty good argument for switching our objective from risk-limiting auditing to basic reasonability testing, but Jake wasn't having it. He's a professional organizer. He works with people while I work with data and ideas. He shot my idea down with one well-placed bullet.
"We are going to have to arouse citizens in 72 counties to action," Jake pointed out. "I don't think we're going to have much luck with the battle cry: "We are going to ask our county clerks to be a little less negligent!"
Okay. Point taken. We need to strive for something more than a little less negligence.
March 2017: Final report on Wisconsin's historic recount issued by the Stein recount team!
- Although Wisconsin is among the shrinking number of states that do not routinely audit election results, Wisconsin did a better job of recounting than either of the other two states in which recounts were sought.
- Unfortunately, only about half of Wisconsin's ballots were actually recounted. The other half were fed back through voting machines programmed by the same people who programmed them for the election.
- County canvasses reported election results after the recount that differed by at least 17,681 votes from the results that they certified as 'correct and true' before the recount.
- The major causes of miscounts included inaccurate counting of write-in votes; unreliable processing of early ballots; and voting machines that were unable to read voter intent.
- Canvass procedures used by Wisconsin election officials allowed them to certify even obvious miscounts before the recount. Until Wisconsin voters insist that officials verify accuracy during the canvass, it is virtually certain that the final results of every Wisconsin election will contain errors that could have been detected and corrected with responsible, modern canvass procedures.
* * *
In December 2016, Wisconsin election officials got a rare opportunity to review the quality of their work when fed-up citizens donated more than the State's quoted price of $3.7 million to finally get our election results checked for accuracy.
Unfortunately, the recount discovered what we expected.
First, officials in most of Wisconsin's largest counties didn't recount at all, but ran the ballots back through computers programmed by the same people who programmed them for the election. So if Milwaukee County's voting machines were hacked, we still wouldn't know it.
Second, even with hand counts of only about half the State's ballots, vote-counting errors were discovered in 2,340 polling places, more than 64% of the total. The state's county clerks changed their vote totals by more than 17,681 votes from the election results they had previously sworn to be 'correct and true.'
- Vote-counting computers in Marinette County were discovered to have missed one quarter of all votes on paper early ballots. The clerk told Wisconsin Election Integrity that the county canvass hadn't noticed the error, didn't look for errors, and wouldn't correct any if they saw them. She believes it's the poll workers' job to count votes correctly, and her job to add up the totals they submit. (She's wrong about that--poll workers have no authority to correct a machine count with hand count on their own initiative, but the county clerk does.)
- In Milwaukee County, one precinct simply dropped 247 votes for one candidate. Neither the county officials nor the state Wisconsin Election Commission noticed the apparent 40.25% undervote rate until the recounters found the error.
- In Dane County, polling places in three municipalities, including Madison, failed to count more than five dozen absentee ballots, which were still in their envelopes when the recount started. Neither the municipal nor county canvass had noticed those errors.
- Vote-counting computers in St. Croix County were discovered to have been operating with broken security seals for two years through the past four elections.
- In at least two counties, recount observers noticed that vote-counting computers were equipped with wireless communications capability, despite the assurances of national and local officials that our voting machines are never connected to the Internet.
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Summary: Once again, something we hoped would be an improvement is much less than it appears. Dane County Clerk Scott McDonell has been saying that he now conducts voting machine audits after every election. But what might look like an audit to a casual observer is at best only a spot check. The county's efforts follow neither GAB instructions for voting-machine audits nor national recommendations for election audits.
The inefficiency of the county effort is astounding. The Wisconsin Election Integrity Action team, with only two hours of active vote-counting, completed our audit confirming the countywide April 5 outcomes in both the Supreme Court race and the Democratic primary (because we followed national authorities' recommendations.) In contrast, McDonell's idiosyncratic process kept his auditors counting for 7.5 hours in an effort that, at best, could confirm output from only two machines.
Worse, McDonell's insistence on declaring election results accurate first and checking later means that the process cannot protect Dane County's final election results from undetected miscounts. If such a delayed spot-check was to detect an electronic miscount, it would cause only chaos, unnecessary controversy, and possible legal action.
The following post explains five of the flaws in McDonell's process.Read more
I observed Dane County's post-election canvass of the April 5 election results from start to finish this year--all 19 hours over 4 days.
No surprises: As usual, both the municipal and county canvasses checked and double-checked to make sure the right number of BALLOTS had been counted. However, the Board of Canvass (County Clerk Scott McDonell, Democratic Party representative Gretchen Lowe, and Republican Party representative Joyce Waldrop) certified Dane County's election results at around 3:30 PM on Wednesday, before any one had done anything to verify that the correct number of VOTES had been counted.
The votes of 234,681 Dane County voters (99.6% of the total) were certified based only on unaudited computer output. Vote totals are now no longer subject to change or correction.
The other 859 ballots were late-arriving absentee ballots and approved provisional ballots, which had been publicly hand-counted by the municipalities. The last two days of the county canvass were devoted to making sure the votes from those 849 ballots were added to the correct candidates' totals.
Got that? Half the canvass effort to ensure the accurate counting of only 0.4% of the votes.
Over four days, County Clerk McDonell maintained the minimum transparency required by law. Any observers who were already familiar with the statutes and GAB guidance for county canvasses (that would be me) could follow along reasonably well, but anyone else would have been out of luck in terms of understanding what the canvassers were doing or why. McDonell provided no written procedures or standards--not even to the members of the board. Neither did he explain what they were doing as they went along; allow questions from observers; or provide observers with copies of anything the canvassers were looking at, or make it visible to them in any way such as by projecting it on a screen.
"Just guess" was the unspoken message to the public. Finally, he restricted any public comment to five minutes at the end of the four-day-long meeting.
It got this bizarre: At the end of the four days, I asked if I could ask a question and was told I could make a five-minute statement and that was it. (McDonell claimed that to answer a question for the public would be a violation of open meetings law.)
So the official public comment at the county canvass started with this awkwardness coming out of my mouth: "I noticed an agenda-less canvass meeting on the county calendar for 10 AM on April 20. I assume that is the digital-image audit you've been promising. I hope you will let me know if I am right or wrong in that assumption."
I'm not making this up: McDonell didn't even nod yes or no. And when Waldrop wanted to respond to my comment, he wouldn't allow that, either.
This created something of a Mad-Hatter-Tea-Party feeling to the event, since it was basically just four of us sitting around a table in a conference room in the City-County building, sharing Girl Scout cookies from McDonell's daughters. The canvassers and I would chat whenever McDonell left the room, but when he was present they had to pretend I wasn't there, as McDonell himself did.
I left them with a letter, which I've uploaded here. It's kind of wonky--I wanted to address them as professionals who know and care what words like 'risk,' 'prioritize' and 'verification' mean. I could see that at least Lowe was reading it carefully, and she asked me a few sensible questions after the meeting adjourned. The main points of the letter are:
- they spend most of their time addressing risks that are much more remote than the risk of electronic miscounts, or that address no risk at all--such as reviewing vote totals in uncontested races for which it would be impossible for them to certify the wrong winner; and
- they also spend time on tasks that don't need to be completed before they certify the election results, such as discussing individual municipalities' Election-Day practices for keeping track of the number of voters.
And yet they tell us they have no time to check the accuracy of the computer-generated vote totals--which cover 99.6% of the votes.
My request to them wasn't anything dramatic: I simply urged them to consider risk and timeliness when they decide what to do during the canvass, and told them if they thought about it that way, it would be obvious that verification of the computer output is more important than most of what they are doing now.
As I sat listening to them recite numbers for four days, I visualized the following graphic, which shows:
The steps by which our votes are turning into final election results;
The parts of this process that are verified by the current county canvass procedures; and
The parts of the process that are verified by the type of audit we've been demonstrating in our citizens' audits.