Are elections for the candidates or for the People?

Last night at a friend's house, I had an interesting conversation with a county board supervisor who isn't yet convinced that we need to verify electronically tabulated election results. Give him credit for being willing to talk, but Roger (a pseudonym) is still comfortable with leaving the audit trail unaudited while we hand out certificates of election to whomever the output tapes indicated.

Last night, Roger dug in on an argument I find particularly curious. "Who are you," he asked, "to demand that the voting-machine output be checked for accuracy if the candidates themselves have not asked for a recount?

CandidateAndCrowd-2.jpg"Because we voters have standing." I replied. "Our right to accurate election results is not contingent upon whether your opponent was satisfied. And neither is the county clerk's statutory responsibility to certify only accurate results."  

Roger didn't process that idea, but simply rephrased his point: "I won my last election," he continued, "By only 50 votes. My opponent conceded without asking for a recount. If he was satisfied with the results, why should anyone else question them?"

Roger isn't the only one from whom I've  heard this argument in various forms. It's based on a politician's view of elections. To Roger, the election was a man-to-man contest between two and only two competitors. One of them accumulated the most inanimate points (votes) and won the prize of public office. Voters were like mere spectators at a sporting event, able only to boo or to cheer--but not to question--the referee's calls.

I then challenged Roger with the property-tax-bill analogy: Suppose we had a city treasurer who routinely pushed the "Calculate property tax bills" button on his computer and mailed the bills before checking their accuracy.

Assuming that any city treasurer would ever do this (none would!), I told Roger, "We would not tolerate it for a minute if the city treasurer defended this carelessness by saying, "I'll check accuracy when and if an individual property owner demands that I do."

"We would consider it a problem for the whole community, not just one taxpayer, if we knew it was possible that the system had charged lower tax rates to homes in one part of town than another," I said. "We would not wait for the overcharged owners to suspect the error, or demand that they foot the bill for the audit when they did."

"How is it so evident," I asked, "that city treasurers, but not elections officials, have active ongoing responsibility for the accuracy of their computers' output?"

Roger's a lawyer and was in lawyer mode, so I didn't expect him to concede anything. He didn't. He pointed out that the property owners who thought they'd been overcharged would object, and I agreed. He did not, however, engage on either the point that both the city treasurer and the elections official have responsibility to check the accuracy of their computers' output regardless of whether anyone demands it, or the point that the community as a whole has an interest in both accurate property tax bills and accurate election results.

That particular blind spot--perceiving election results to be more like the private property of the candidates than the shared property of the community--accounts for a significant part of the opposition to routine verification. I notice it whenever people start talking about recounts as any sort of acceptable substitute for routine prudent verification of computer output.

Elections are by far the most powerful and basic means by which we, the People, can exercise our collective right to self-government, and I will not concede to any individual candidate--winner or loser--my standing to demand proof that my community's votes were counted accurately.

* * *


The take-away point of this blog post is the major principle: Elections belong to the people, not to the candidates. However, there is a technicality I also want to explain.

When I got home, I looked up the results of Roger's last election. He remembered correctly that he got 50 more votes than his opponent. That gave him 50.89% of the votes to his opponent's 49.1%, or a victory margin of 1.79%. Current law provides for free recounts only when the margin of victory is less than 0.25% (in that election, 7 votes), so his opponent would have had to pay the full cost of the recount. 

This in a county where the voting machines have already demonstrated they are capable of allowing dust bunnies to cast at least 1.3%  of the votes.

Prudent, professional elections administration simply does not make verification contingent upon individual candidates' willingness and ability to pay for a full recount and to be labeled a 'sore loser.'



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Point-counterpoint on the need for routine timely verification

I regularly write to county officials about the need for routine, transparent, timely verification of the output of Dane County's voting machines. I rarely get any response--occasionally a polite but negative RSVP if I invite them to a presentation.  I don't really expect more, because the decision is entirely up to County Clerk Scott McDonell. Others--particularly pesky 'outsiders' (you might know them as 'voters')--don't have a say.

But today I got a polite and reasoned reply from Dane County Executive Joe Parisi, a former county clerk himself. He expressed his own "strong interest in assuring the accuracy and integrity of our elections," and commended the Wisconsin Election Action Team's "passion for this issue and for your commitment to ensuring that every vote counts," calling it "a noble and worthwhile cause."

So he shares our goals--that much is reassuring. I also appreciated the absence of the all-too-common reflexive defensiveness I've encountered from other officials.

Point-Counterpoint.jpgParisi was county clerk before risk-limiting audits and digital ballot images entered the national discussion, so it's not surprising he is not well-versed on the current and best thinking about management of electronic elections technology. He seems simply to accept what current County Clerk McDonell tells him about today's options. Parisi sent along to me a 'fact sheet' that McDonell prepared about a year ago, and Parisi's comments indicated that he considered it a useful, informative document.

McDonell has slightly updated the document since he first wrote it, but it remains a classic list of rationalizations given by those who defend the use of unaudited computer output as our final election results.

I've uploaded McDonell's arguments, verbatim, along with a point-by-point explanation of their shortcomings. Here are the highlights:

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Results from Citizens' Audit of Feb. Supreme Court Primary

CheckLogo-Medium.jpgJust a quick post to share the results from Saturday's Citizens Audit of Dane County's voting-machine output in the February 16 primary for Wisconsin Supreme Court.

I'll expand this blog post later with more detail (post any questions in the comments section if there's something specific you want to know about), but right now I'm in a hurry to get the summary report out and get to work on the more detailed report.

One of the things we are trying to do is to demonstrate what a good, transparent, public post-election audit would look like--and that includes prompt and thorough public reporting of the findings. (Something the Dane County Clerk does not do. He says he routinely performs post-election audits, but if you've even seen him publicly report any findings from those audits, I'm afraid you were hallucinating. Hasn't happened.)

Anyway, here's our report of what we did and what we saw in Saturday's audit, and now I'm back to work writing the more thorough report.

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Explaining voting machines to space aliens

When I see nutty behavior—things like toddlers in beauty pageants, a national system of employer-funded health insurance, or legalizing switchblade knives—I practice empathy for my fellow humans by imagining how I would explain their conduct to space aliens. You see, I don’t want the Martians to get the impression my species is irredeemably stupid, so the exercise forces me to dig deep to figure out any possible rational explanation for the behavior.

ExplainingToSpaceAliensTo appreciate the irrationality of using unaudited computer output to determine who wins our elections, imagine what would happen if people in your city started questioning the accuracy of their computer-tabulated property tax bills. Here’s what would not happen:

The city treasurer would not say that he has always mailed the bills before checking whether his computer tabulated them correctly, and that no one has ever complained before.

The city treasurer would not point out that no law explicitly requires him to check the accuracy of the property tax bills before he mails them.

If asked to audit his computer’s output, the treasurer would not start chattering about the dangers of ‘tampering’ with his own records.

He would not demand that the suspicious property owner pay the full cost of the audit unless the suspected error was tiny–less than 0.25% (one-quarter of one percent.)

And if some deranged city treasurer ever did respond like that, you can bet the local newspaper would not speculate about why the property owners unexpectedly chose to receive suspicious tax bills, or what sort of tinfoil-hat paranoia made them want verification.

Yet that is precisely what happens when citizens have questions about the accuracy of our computer-tabulated election results.

As a culture, we’re computer-literate.  We understand the need to maintain as much security as we can for all computers, including voting machines. We understand the need to test them before putting them into actual use. But voting machines remain the ONLY computers in either business or government that we operate with no routine way of noticing when their output has been affected by errors or by manipulation while the computers were in actual use and not just being tested.

So, how would I explain that to space aliens?

It’s not money: Manual vote-counting to verify the computer output can be done by low-paid temporary staff like poll workers or even by volunteers. Post-election verification would cost only a tiny fraction of our overall elections-administration budget.

It’s not time: Although our statutes unfortunately value speed over accuracy, they still give county officials roughly three weeks following each election to declare results final, and allow them to ask for more time if needed. And verification has been made efficient and economical by sampling methods specifically designed for elections by the American Statistical Association, and by recent technological innovations such as digital ballot images, which can be displayed more quickly than paper ballots can be handled.

So what is it? We can say it’s just habit, but that just kicks the question backwards. Why did such strange habits develop?

The main reasons, I think, are standard human foibles—wishful thinking and its evil twin, denial. We want impartial vote-counting so badly that we imagine it exists where it literally cannot. Just a moment’s thought would make anyone realize that every computer is programmed and maintained by fallible, sometimes dishonest humans. But taking that moment would mean giving up the idea of a magically impartial vote-counting box. Our gut knows that admitting the need for verification in future elections means admitting past elections may already have been stolen without our knowledge. For many it is literally unthinkable that we may already be governed by people chosen by criminals or by computer glitches rather than by the will of the people.

A lesser reason, I think, is the tendency, especially among election officials, to see elections as competitions between individual candidates rather than as the expression of a community’s collective will. Talk not very long to most local elections officials and you’ll pick up a burning desire just to get the thing settled—like your mom felt when she didn’t care which kid was right, she just wanted the fight to stop. Maintaining the illusion of quickly decisive results is more comfortable than making sure everyone understands that Election-Night results are preliminary until verified. I cannot count the times I’ve had election officials express a sense that there cannot possibly be a problem when no individual candidate has challenged the results—as if voters like me have no standing to ask for evidence of accuracy, or as if they themselves have no obligation to ensure accuracy unless challenged.

In summary, it’s a good thing I’m not going to have to defend our management of voting machines to the Haggunenons, because that’s the best I can do. There’s no way around it—using unverified computer output to determine who will govern us is indefensibly irrational.

To get the word out about the necessity for prompt verification and to demonstrate its practicality, the Wisconsin Election Integrity Action Team will be conducting public citizens’ audits of election results in Dane County after every election in 2016.

The next one is scheduled for March 12, at the South Central Federation of Labor Hall, 1602 S. Park St. in Madison. We’ll start the audit at 9 AM and continue until we’ve verified the Dane County outcome of the Supreme Court primary and at least two other contests—maybe around 4 PM. Anyone can drop by at any time to see the process and count votes right along with us.  Who knows, maybe soon we can convince the county elections officials to do this themselves, and I won’t have to worry about space aliens thinking we’re stupid.

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Report on the Development of Procedures for Verifying with Digital Ballot Images

ISlideShow.jpgt's time to start gearing up for the citizens' audits that will verify the electronically tabulated results of the 2016 elections, in Dane County and any other Wisconsin counties where people want to join the effort to improve management of Wisconsin's elections technology.

Almost all large Wisconsin counties now use voting machines that automatically, immediately preserve a digital image of every ballot.

In any of these counties the county clerk or involved  citizens could choose to use the images in astoundingly efficient, transparent manual counts to verify the accuracy of the voting-machine output.

The Wisconsin Election Action Team demonstrated the method after the February and April elections in Dane County last year, and will be conducting similar public demonstrations after the 2016 elections.

We have released a report that describes the procedures, benefits and risks of Using Automatically Created Digital Ballot Images to Verify Voting-Machine Output in Wisconsin. (Catchy title, that!)  In this report, you will find: 

  • A technical description of the digital ballot images created by the ES&S DS200 and a picture of one of the images;
  • A layperson's description of 'risk-limiting auditing,' the technique that allows audits to count just a sample of the ballots while still achieving statistical certainty that the correct winners were identified (or not);
  • A step-by-step description of an efficient, transparent process for conducting a citizens' audit; and
  • A frank discussion of the limitations and risks of using digital ballot images for this purpose.

Please pass this along to your friends who live in Dane County and encourage them to mark their calendars for Saturday, March 12, to attend a public, transparent post-election audit that will verify Dane County's results in the February 16 Supreme Count primary and perhaps a few other races. The location wil be announced later--follow Wisconsin Election Integrity on Facebook.

Residents of other Wisconsin counties, please read this report and consider whether you could help to organize a similar citizens' audit in your own county, particularly if you live in one of Wisconsin's larger counties that use optical-scan voting systems. If you can, please contact us at, and we can provide you with the necessary software, instructions, and pointers.

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How do good people go so wrong? What can we do about it? Lessons from the Volkswagen fraud

Dozens if not hundreds of Volkswagen employees must have known of the recently detected emissions software fraud  that continued for six years and affected 11 million cars around the world.

And yet the fraud was not revealed by a whistle-blower; it was discovered by outsiders.  How could Volkswagen management have coerced so many otherwise reasonable, ethical people into silent cooperation over so long a time?  Or did they deliberately hire only crooks?

I’m writing about the Volkswagen fraud in this blog because it raises two big questions relevant to elections: First, is it plausible that voting machine companies could perpetrate a similar sort of fraud?  Second, is it plausible that their customers, local election officials, wouldn’t notice?

ComputerFraudCircuitBoard.jpgNow, I don’t run around claiming fraud I cannot prove. I have a natural-born skeptic’s aversion to making accusations without conclusive evidence. Years working at Wisconsin’s Legislative Audit Bureau—an investigative and oversight agency--only sharpened that instinct.  At the same time, my hard-wired respect for hard facts also makes me dubious about election officials’ claims that they can ensure 100% correct results every time without routine verification. No other computer-dependent manager makes such an extraordinary demand on my trust.  I am acutely aware that when it comes to electronic elections fraud, the only elections we are sure were not miscounted (arguably) are the very few that were recounted. Considering what is at stake, that is a very serious problem.

Back to the questions. First, with regard to the voting-machine companies, the Volkswagen affair clearly demonstrates the plausibility of systemic fraud by companies that manufacture, sell, or service computerized equipment, whether it’s cars or voting machines. Fraud is particularly feasible when they demand proprietary secrecy for their software, and when they sell their product to consumers who have no particular information technology expertise--like local government election officials.  

For example, a voting-machine company could routinely install clandestine wireless communications capability on each of its voting machines, in case the company ever feels the need to fix a bug (or an election) without the knowledge of local election officials. The vendors know that local officials never inspect the equipment in any way that might discover the chip, because they don’t want to appear to be ‘tampering with the machines.’ (See footnote.)  And IT experts tell us that is only one of several ways voting-machine company insiders could alter election results if they chose to.

With regard to the second question—the local election officials’ willingness to allow possible fraud to go undetected: That’s readily answered. We know they are willing.  They grant vendors proprietary secrecy for their software, so no election official ever inspects the vote-tabulating software loaded into any machine. And yet, knowing they did not and cannot inspect the software, the vast majority of jurisdictions—including all Wisconsin counties—routinely neglect to verify the accuracy of electronically tabulated results. My previous post in this blog described the puzzling refusal of many officials even to learn about their practical options for detecting miscounts.

But why?

In a well-researched and well-written article in the most recent Atlantic Magazine, What Was Volkswagen Thinking?, business journalist Jerry Useem provides insight into both the corporations and their customers.

Using examples of actual corporate conduct both good and bad, the article explains how otherwise ethical employees of a company, such as a voting-machine company, could go for years without saying anything about their machines’ hack-ability, and why otherwise responsible election officials could choose to trust the machines’ Election-Day accuracy based on nothing more than a determined will to believe.

People within an organization, Useem explains, fall prey to “a cultural drift in which circumstances classified as not okay are slowly reclassified as okay.” In response to pressures and expectations in their workplace, otherwise competent people come to see careless conduct as admirable flexibility. They begin to tolerate excessive risk-taking as if it was creative experimentation. Withholding damaging information starts to feel like prudent discretion. Actual fraud is mentally redefined to be practical adaptation to circumstances.

The derailment usually starts at the top. Useen notes the obvious: in many cases, management is simply dishonest, as seems to have been the case with Volkswagen, and as many election-integrity activists fear when they point to voting machine companies owned by active partisans.

But management might be honest and just as genuinely self-deluded as their employees. Upper-level management might have made ‘fantastic commitments’ without being aware that the company’s employees could not fulfill them without cheating. From my own experience with contracting and procurement, I also suspect impetus to cheat can arise from customers’ demands.

For example, one Wisconsin county clerk has written he does not allow updates or patches to that county’s voting-machine software. If this is true, it’s easy to see how the vendor would be tempted to install wireless communications capability in that county’s voting machines. And why not? The company needs occasionally to update and patch the software, and the county clerk will never discover the communications chip. It would be the only way the company could keep the machines up to date without upsetting the clerk. And once that chip is there, every employee who knows about it is on nothing stronger than an honor system not to alter the election results, because output isn't routinely verified in Wisconsin.

Once expectations are clear, employees will try to conform their behavior. And that behavior is comfortable only when they also bring their perceptions and beliefs into compliance.

For example, an in-depth study following the Challenger space-shuttle explosion found that engineers had observed O-ring failure--the cause of the disaster--in many previous tests; had reported it; and had repeatedly been pressured to endorse more risk as acceptable. Compliantly, they had rewritten their reports to approve looser and looser standards. Then, just before the fatal flight, freezing temperatures convinced the engineers to issue a “No Launch” recommendation. However:

“The data they faxed to NASA to buttress (their no-launch recommendation) were the same data they had earlier used to argue that the space shuttle was safe to fly. NASA pounced on the inconsistency. (Faced with the) script they themselves had built in the preceding years, (the engineers) buckled. The “no-launch” recommendation was reversed to “launch.”

Useem explains that the engineers and managers “were not merely acting as if nothing was wrong. They believed it, bringing to mind Orwell’s concept of doublethink, the method by which a bureaucracy conceals evil not only from the public but from itself.”

That could explain why so many otherwise responsible election officials seem to shut down when you try to talk to them about examining voting-machine output for accuracy. We look at them and think, “You’ve got so very much invested in the elections—all those security measures, all those pre-election tests--how could you not want to check to make sure everything came out right on Election Day?”

But they look at all their hard work and think, “I promised everyone it would work. My career will be over if it doesn’t work. It’s got to work. I’m sure it worked.” Useem explains what happens next:

Even without stress, people tend to underestimate the probability of future bad events. Put them under emotional stress ... and this tendency gets amplified. People will favor decisions that preempt short-term social discomfort even at the cost of heightened long-term risk.

So how do we help election officials break out of this mindset? How do we increase their fear of a ‘future bad event’ that could cause them ‘short-term social discomfort’?

Oddly enough, it is not the risk of a miscounted election occurring that causes their fear; it is the risk of a miscount being detected. Most computer-dependent managers--not election officials--realistically expect that if they do not catch a computer error, someone else will. For them, routine audits reduce fear. But miscounting voting machines don’t blow up like space shuttles, and candidates cannot take voting machines out for test drives between elections. Therefore, in the absence of post-election verification, election officials have no realistic fear of anyone discovering a miscount. The idea of an audit has the opposite effect on them: their fear goes from nothing to, well, something.

That’s why transparent, high-quality citizens’ audits are critical. Even if they cannot be completed before the identified winners are sworn into office, they will still serve a useful purpose of increasing election officials’ realistic expectation (okay, fear) that any miscounts will be detected—if not by them, by someone else.  That will create for them the same discomfort felt by bankers, city treasurers, grocery store owners, and all the other computer-dependent managers who fear embarrassment or worse if they don’t notice the computer error and correct it before someone else does.


Note:   I know of no requirement that anyone inspect Wisconsin's voting machines to verify they have no wireless communications capability. Over the years, I’ve asked several Wisconsin election officials if they inspect the machines anyway and have not had any tell me that they do. If anyone reading this has any first-hand knowledge of any local officials’ inspection practices that include checking for wireless communications capability, please email me at

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Too scared even to talk?

Before I retired, I worked in quality assurance for a program that delivered health care and daily living support in clients’ homes. It was a non-military government program, so the provider agencies never had more than a skeleton staff on a shoestring budget. There was rarely only one right way to do anything. Whether because of or in spite of that, most managers were willing to think and talk about quality improvement.

But there were always a few who could be counted on to insist everything was already as good as they could make it, and would resist even learning about any new ideas.  

I’m seeing the more of these folk now that I’m working in volunteer election-integrity work.

Verifying computer output is not a novel idea; no sensible person doubts the need to check accuracy whether the output is our property tax bills or our election results. Wisconsin statutes require clerks to keep an ‘auditable’ paper record of every ballot, not a ‘decorative’ one, so we can safely infer that legislative intent had something to do with checking accuracy.

BreezeofChange.jpgElections officials who are willing to acknowledge those facts can converse fairly readily about the practical questions: How many ballots do we have to examine before we can be confident we’ve identified the right winners? How can we do that in the time available? If I innovate, what opposition can I anticipate and who is willing to back me up? No local official in Wisconsin that I know of has yet decided to make any improvement but with some, the conversation continues and focuses more on reasonable problem-solving than on rationalizing denial.

But there are many election officials who, when they catch even a whiff of change wafting in on a gentle breeze, batten down the hatches as if expecting a hurricane.

Late last month, I sent a for-your-information letter to each of the 61 municipal clerks in a county where we’re working on raising awareness of the need for verification and its practical solution. Because many are sensitive to any hint of criticism, the letter made it clear that we were asking for change in only county procedures, not municipal ones. In describing what we would be asking of the county, I chose the most respectful, non-threatening, benign words possible without misleading them about the fact that we are asking for improvement. The letter ended with an offer to visit the municipal clerk, at his or her convenience, to talk more about the issue.

Two weeks later, I found one response in my email inbox. After a few comments that revealed significant naiveté about the inherent limitations of the clerks' IT security measures, the municipal clerk wrote:

I tire of these subtle (and sometimes blatant) indictments of a system where it is obvious that no one has taken the time to confer with the clerks first. Instead, they pattern advice on what is assumed to be true.  Also, I get the impression someone is prepared to sell us some proprietary software to “fix” a non-problem.

Well, at least he responded. That put him ahead of all the others.

I shushed the devil on my shoulder that wanted to point out that if the writer had genuinely wanted to confer, he could have accepted my offer to meet rather than complaining that we’d never met.  In my actual response, I explained some of the basics of prudent IT security as briefly as I could, taking care to work in reference to having spoken with many clerks.

ConfidentHouse.jpgBut I did not bother to reiterate my offer to meet with him, and I don’t expect to hear back. When someone has boarded up all his mental doors and windows, my guess is that the best thing is to let him calm down in silence until he realizes there won’t be a hurricane.

The disheartening thing is that the people who are open to the breezes of change are not those who are in a position to implement improvements.

Voters and poll workers, to start with, are very interested when they learn that election results could be made safe from electronic miscounts. They know how much they have invested in elections, and how tragic it would be to lose it all to a computer glitch, when such a loss could easily be prevented.

State and national officials are interested, too. It's the national authorities' recommendations that we're trying to get local elections officials to heed. And last July, when we gave a public demonstration of an efficient new verification method, attendance at the event included the director of the state Government Accountability Board and his chief elections manager; the director of the state League of Women Voters; and a nationally-renowned, federal-government-advising expert on election technology and computer-science professor from a neighboring state.

From within a 30-mile radius, we had also invited 3 county elections officials, 37 county board supervisors, and 61 municipal clerks. Not one of them showed up. Not one.

Among the fingers-in-my-ears-I-can’t-hear-you responses received from local officials over the past few years:

  • Every excuse short of “I’m planning on washing my hair that night.” If an election is coming up within two months, they are too busy preparing to talk. If an election is more than two months away, they will be willing to talk about election administration issues when they are more timely.  One municipal clerk begged off attendance at a public meeting by saying she’d be too busy registering voters—at 8:00 PM. (She has a staff of seven.)
  • They’re just so busy with everything else all the time, they cannot even read the invitation. One county board supervisor told me not to expect a response from any other county board supervisor because “We get so many emails we don’t read them.”
  • It’s not my job: “You don’t need to talk to me because I’m (not on that committee; not in the majority; from a neighborhood too affected by Voter ID…).”
  • And, of course, silence.

This cannot go on forever. We will get their attention somehow, and for their sake, I hope it's before the next serious electronic miscount gives us cause to shout “I told you so!”

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What cardboard skeletons teach us about voting-machine security

Our local election officials do the best they can with voting-machine security--really, they do. They might or might not understand the dangers of illicit installation of wireless communications chips or software tampering, but they all know they need to keep those machines safely locked up between elections in town hall storage rooms, village police garages, and various other secure compartments.

I cannot count the times that local elections officials have earnestly reassured me of their diligence about that, and I sincerely believe every word. It seems rude to remind them that no matter how hard they try, they cannot count on having complete control, so I try to be gentle when I tell them that they still need to check the output for accuracy, just in case.

HalloweenDecor.jpgBut one Connecticut town clerk got the message loud and clear when she went to retrieve the voting machine for an upcoming election and, to her great dismay, found it festooned with crepe paper and cardboard skeletons. One of the town board members had accommodated a local high school club's request to use the town hall for a Halloween haunted house evening and had borrowed the janitor's key ring for the event. The dusty, dark storage room made a perfect place for the skeletons.

That Connecticut elections clerk retired to Wisconsin, and I ran into her at a party tonight. Her story was the most humorous I've heard, but it's unusual only in its colorful details. A Wisconsin county clerk once told me of returning from vacation to find the door to the room where the county election-management computer room hanging wide open. The county executive told her the cleaning crew had decided to take her vacation as an opportunity to clean that room. He apologized that they'd neglected to close the door when they left, but neither he nor the county clerk had realized the cleaning crew's master key worked on that door, too.

Towns, villages, and cities are run by normally competent and well-meaning people who generally do the very best we can expect of them. But management tasks are frequently handled by part-time employees or even volunteers, and executive oversight is provided by local elected officials who often have even less training and experience.

We cannot imagine we can protect our voting machines from tampering simply by demanding local elections officials maintain fool-proof security programs. It's just not within their power.

Transparent, rigorous post-election verification of voting machine output remains the only way local elections clerks, candidates, and voters can be sure that the machines performed accurately on Election Day--or discover if they did not in time to correct the output.

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Reason or rationalization? Arguments against verifying voting-machine output

Reasoning.jpgWhen my physical therapist asks why I didn’t do the prescribed exercises, I could reply, “Because they are uncomfortable, I am clumsy, and I feel like an idiot when I do them.” Those are the real reasons--not admirable, but honest.

But if I replied, “I don’t have room anywhere in my house;” or “Your instructions confused me,” those would be rationalizations—self-serving half-truths or untruths created for the purpose of either concealing my true motivations or deflecting the conversation.

Because there is no good reason for declaring unaudited voting-machine output to be final election results, anyone who defends the practice must argue based on 1) honest but weak reasons or 2) rationalizations.

Rationalization.jpgThe county clerk where I live rationalizes. Last week, a curious newspaper editor asked me to explain the clerk’s reasons for opposing verification, so I provided her with a long, defensive memo the clerk had written for county board supervisors and explained it line by line—850 words of pure rationalization. Verifying voting-machine output is ‘outside the law’ (No, it’s not.) It would require a full recount. (No, it wouldn’t.) Pre-election testing makes post-election checking unnecessary. (No, it doesn’t.)  I almost felt silly for wasting the editor’s time. I wanted to say, “Can I just tell you that these are all just excuses and red herrings, and offer you some facts instead?”

Other county clerks I’ve encountered give honest reasons for not verifying the accuracy of the voting machines’ output. A clerk in a nearby county once gave me a very heartfelt description of his fear of sparking partisan accusations of ‘tampering’ with the election record if he opened the ballot bags after they were sealed on Election Night.  His honesty gave us an opportunity to talk about the sorts of things supportive citizens could do to shield him from such attacks.

Yesterday, I chatted with another elections official. She earned my respect for her integrity, if not her insight, as she struggled for several minutes to articulate her reasons for opposing post-election audits: “Once we start to treat election results as something that can be open to question, where does it stop? We will audit and then someone will say “Yeah, well, the audit was rigged.” Then we’ll need to audit the audit and where does it end?”

The slippery-slope argument is always suspect, but deserves respect when it is someone's genuine concern.  And in part, she is right: A small proportion of sore losers will always find fault with the process, which will always have flaws. But they’re complaining now, so we have nothing to lose with them. And if we reject every improvement that won't please them, we can never move forward.

The vast majority of voters, however, will be more confident in election results if officials make at least one transparent, credible pass at verifying the accuracy of the computer output. Other public officials who audit their computer output don't have an unmanageable  problem with demands that they audit their audits. Finally, the difference between one audit and none at all is likely to make a world of difference to a would-be electronic thief as he considers whether to hack our vote-counting software.

I have a lot of respect for the reasoners, even if we disagree. Their well-motivated effort to articulate what they honestly see as problems and to stay engaged in the conversation is invaluable in moving forward. The rationalizers? I dunno. Constructive conversation with them is impaired if not impossible. After all, that is why people rationalize--to shut down productive conversation. And if they don't engage in problem-solving conversation, we just have to go around them to others. Although I genuinely dislike showing someone up to be foolish or dishonest, I don't yet see any other option.


Dane County, Wisconsin residents: Please visit this county citizen-feedback webpage, and vote for the petition seeking verification of our voting-machine output. (Use a desktop, laptop, or tablet--users say that the site does not yet work well on smartphones.) 

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Think of it as a critical administrative task, not a challenge to preliminary results

Verifying voting-machines output before declaring election results final is such a no-brainer, I find myself spending significant brain power trying to figure out why so many people cannot see that.

Take the computer out of the voting machine and into any other office in county government...or city government, or state, federal, private business or even your own home, and no one would dream of using its output to make a decision even half as consequential as who will govern us before they have verified the computer output was correct. Stick it in a voting machine, and everyone (except probably the hackers) sees it as some sort of Greek Oracle--whatever it prints out Must Be The Truth.

FourFatesCartoon.jpgIt's occurred to me that one problem might be that we all get caught up in elections as contests--this side versus that side. When preliminary results are announced on Election Night, those tagged as winners want to celebrate. The head-spinning rapidity with which candidates concede to unaudited computer tape may be a good indicator of how very much they just want it to be over once the voting-machine oracle has spoken. After all, they need to get back to finishing up their campaign-finance reports--those need to be accurate.

Instead of standing back, unemotionally, from the task and treating voting-machine output like we would any that supporting any other big decision, we perceive post-election verification as a continuation of the winners-and-losers drama. Instead of acting like sober grown-ups, we act like spectators at a ball game, condemning anyone who questions the ref. In the past two weeks, I've read a lot of online discussion of the odd results in Kentucky and Ohio. Nearly every discussion gets derailed into a discussion of people's motives for questioning the output or into evidence-free speculation on other reasons for the outcomes. I cannot think of any other circumstance in which people don't demand an answer to the first question, "Are we sure that's correct?" before, or at least while, speculating on other possibilities.

Yesterday, I introduced the topic of verifying voting-machine output to a sharp young democracy activist from Milwaukee. She is already deeply immersed in the fights for redistricting reform, getting the money out of politics, and even proportional representation. She seemed to catch on quickly, but after nodding and asking a few good questions, she asked, "So what makes you think there's a problem?"

She fully understood and accepted the fact that we routinely swear people into office on the basis of unverified computer output--but she didn't perceive that as a 'problem' unless I could present her with evidence that some competitor had been unfairly denied a victory. (I'm polite when I get this response, but one of these days: "I just informed you that no one would know if our elections were being stolen, and you respond by asking whether any elections have been stolen. Let me start again at the beginning...")

Election integrity activists need to point out that verification isn't necessary for the purpose of changing preliminary results; it's necessary to make sure they are, in fact, the results.

We need to speak relentlessly of post-election verification as a routine, basic administrative procedure, rather than as a challenge to this outcome or that. We need to point out the three-legged stool of a) ongoing security, b) pre-operation testing, and c) post-operation verification that every other computer-dependent manager relies upon, and point out that elections administrators are the only managers who pull off and discard that third leg.

A business manager doesn't wait for the owner to contest the bank deposit before he will agree to reconcile the receipts with the cash-register print-out. The city treasurer doesn't need citizens storming his office complaining of inaccurate property tax bills before he makes sure they are being calculated correctly. We don't need to demand a recount from our bank before they audit their books to confirm that all deposits were credited to the correct accounts.

Routine verification of computer output is standard administrative practice, not a continuation of a contentious political campaign.  

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