For election officials


Your challenge is getting candidates and voters to trust elections. In the 21st century, that means getting them to accept voting-machine output as correct and true.

Resistance to computers is not the problem. The vast majority of voters comfortably rely on computers every day at their banks, their jobs, and their grocery store check-out lane. On the other hand, every few weeks a high-profile news story reminds them of the risks (Target, eBay, Sony, Volkswagen...). 

What voters and candidates need from elections officials is evidence of rigorous, effective IT management.

That's not as big a challenge in Wisconsin as it is in many other states. We have an auditable paper record of every ballot; precinct-level counts that make fraud more difficult than in central-count states; and other strengths.

But local election officials still face some challenges that are outside their control. These include:

  • You don't have full control of the voting-machine security. Large companies like Target and Anthem have start-to-finish control of their IT security, but you are forced to rely on IT security that is first the responsibility of the manufacturer, sometimes the vendor, later the county, and finally the municipality. You can  perform your own responsibilities perfectly, but you cannot control--or often even know about--what the others are doing.
  • You are forced to use proprietary software that you cannot inspect. The few voting machines approved for use in Wisconsin have been amply demonstrated to be capable of accurate counts. However, just as when you purchase a new cell phone, you are able to control only the coded setup instructions for each election (like loading your new cell phone with your preferences and your phone book), but you are prohibited from even inspecting the continuing integrity of the vote-counting software that comes loaded in the device, the deep programming that makes the device operate.
  • You are forced to tolerate at least a few opportunities for software alteration. Even though you avoid connecting the voting machines or the central computer to the Internet on Election Day, the need to set up the system for each new election forces  you to provide a regular opportunity for the insertion of malicious or flawed code, or for unintended programming errors. Flawed code could be carried with the installation of requisite patches or updates, or could be transmitted through the PROM packs, flash drives, or other media that you must rely on to set the machines up for each election.

Even given these limitations, though, it is possible to get voters to trust the voting machines. However, a few things will definitely not work:

  • Local officials won't be believed if they tell voters that verification is unnecessary because IT security is 100% effective and voting machines are reliably free from the effects of human error and random malfunction on Election Day. That claim is just not credible with 21st-century voters, and no other computer-dependent manager makes such an extraordinary demand on their trust.
  • Local officials will appear dangerously naive if they say that the voting machines' accuracy is guaranteed by testing and certification, or by recounts and audits in the past. Voters have all experienced a computer that worked right yesterday, but didn't today. They all know the recount that confirmed the county treasurer race last year doesn't tell them anything useful about the accuracy of US Senate results this year.

What will work for local elections officials is the same thing that works for the banks and grocery stores. Adopt  verification procedures that will convince candidates and voters that, when the rare but inevitable error does occur, it will be detected and corrected before certification.

FULL HAND RECOUNTS OF PAPER BALLOTS ARE NOT NECESSARY.  The Cadillac Gold Standard of election integrity, yes. Necessary when you've got reason to suspect a miscount or when you're ordered to recount under state law, absolutely. And you can choose to do full hand counts; that's the method that the former GAB suggested. But full recounts are not necessary for routine administrative verification.

Transparent, effective, and economical verification of voting-machine output can be accomplished with:

1)  Risk-limiting auditing. A technique developed by the American Statistical Society has been widely accepted as effective and legitimate, and has been endorsed by the President's Commission on Elections Administration. RLA allows verification of the outcome of a race (Who won?) without verifying the exact number of votes each candidate received, as is done in a recount. This enables verification of the important question--Are we swearing the right person into office?--by counting votes from only a small, randomly selected sample of ballots.  A full recount is not necessary for verification purposes.

More information about risk-limiting auditing is here.

2)  Use of digital images instead of paper ballots. For a legal recount under s.9.01, Wis. Stats, the voters' actual marked paper ballots must be used. For an administrative function such as verifying that the equipment produced the correct outcome, it is permissible to use other records. The digital images created by most voting machines in Wisconsin are acceptable. These images are basically photographs of each ballot taken at the moment it was cast.  Counting votes from digital images goes MUCH faster than counting votes from paper ballots, due to the elimination of time-consuming paper handling. Projecting the digital images as a slide show also enables multiple independent counts to be done at the same time, cutting the needed time in half when compared to the serial redundant hand counts needed when paper ballots are used. Finally, use of the digital images resolves concern about tampering with or damaging the official record of the election, since multiple copies of the digital-image files can be made while the official paper ballots remain under seal.

More information about the use of digital images in elections verification is here

National elections administration authorities have developed additional guidance for election officials who want to produce verified accurate election results: