For election officials

VotingMachineTest.jpgYou must have wondered: how is it that the same people who comfortably rely on computers at their banks, their jobs, and their grocery store check-out lane get suspicious when the computer is a voting machine?

Here's why: Customers have confidence in the other computers because they are not asked to trust them. Instead, they are routinely shown proof of accuracy.

For example, bank managers don't expect their depositors to trust that the ATM credited their dollars to the right account. ATM depositors get a receipt confirming not just the amount of the current deposit, but the balance in the checking account. Later, a monthly statement lists all their transactions. They know the bank managers will verify accuracy by reconciling the ATM daily and performing several audits that will catch any computer or human errors. They know bank managers will reverse any errors on their own initiative, without waiting for anyone to demand or pay for a recount.

Similarly, customers using a grocery scanner are provided with a receipt that verifies that the scanner read the price of each item accurately, and added the prices correctly into the total.

Compare those experiences to that of the voter who deposits a ballot into a voting machine. The voter sees no proof that his or her own votes were read correctly and credited to the right candidates or that all the votes were summed correctly. If a voter asks for confirmation of accuracy, he or she will be denied, and told that only a losing candidate can request such verification, and that if the suspected error was larger than 0.25%, the candidate will have to pay the full cost of the recount in cash before a quick deadline. If bank managers handled inquiries about ATM accuracy the same way, chances are there would be a lot of distrust among ATM users, too--if there even were any ATM users.

Can we make voters trust computer-tabulated election results without conducting routine audits? 

No. Hearing an election official say "Our voting machines cannot be hacked, so we don't need to verify accuracy" is like hearing your local fire chief say that all the buildings in town are fireproof, and so alarms and sprinkler systems are not necessary.

Voters know there is no such thing as a computer that is not only unhackable, but also immune to programmer error and simple malfunction. Voters hear only naivete when they hear local officials say:

  • that voting machines' accuracy is guaranteed by pre-election testing and federal certification. Voters have all experienced a computer that worked right yesterday, but didn't today;
  • that a recount or audit that confirmed accuracy in a past election demonstrates that present or future elections will be accurate, too. Voters know that a correct August credit card statement doesn't mean you can wisely pay September's bill without checking;
  • That local election officials can maintain more effective IT security than Target, Anthem, eBay, and Volkswagen--all of which have better, bigger IT departments than their county clerk and all of which, despite their superior IT programs, have either been hacked or engaged in tampering themselves.

On top of having fewer IT resources than the big corporations, local election officials face challenges that make security even harder for them:

  • Local election officials don't have full control of the voting-machine security. Large companies have start-to-finish control of their IT security. In contrast, you have control over only a small part of the security program for the voting machines. Voting-machine security is first the responsibility of the manufacturer; then the vendor; the service technician; the county clerk; the municipal clerk; and finally the poll workers.  Anyone along that chain can perform his or her own security responsibilities perfectly, but have no way of knowing whether the others were as careful.
  • Local election officials are forced to use proprietary software they cannot inspect. Elections systems approved for use in Wisconsin have been amply demonstrated to be capable of accurate counts. However, 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 machines, the deep programming that makes them operate. If the software is flawed or compromised when it comes into your possession, you have no way of knowing.
  • Local election officials are forced to tolerate at least a few opportunities for software alteration. Even though you avoid connecting the voting machines or the central elections computer to the Internet on Election Day, you cannot be sure someone else hasn't connected them. You have no way of knowing whether remote-access capability has been installed on the election computers without your authorization (as happened with your Pennsylvania counterparts). And the need to set up the system for each new election creates a regular opportunity for the insertion of malicious or flawed code or 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.

What will work for local elections officials is the same thing that works for the banks and grocery stores: Adopt routine procedures to ensure that when the rare but inevitable error does occur, it will be promptly detected and corrected.

Are routine election audits possible now in Wisconsin?

Yes. Under current state law, Wisconsin's county clerks and boards of canvass have the necessary paper records, the authority to access them, the ability to correct errors during the canvass, and more time for the canvass than their counterparts in many states that require pre-certification audits.

Efficient audits that use modern methods of sampling and ballot display can be completed in just hours, at a low cost that might well fit in your current elections budget.

Full recounts are not necessary to verify that the voting machines identified the right winners--which is all that is necessary to build voter confidence.  

The first, most basic step is what's called ballot reconciliation, or reasonability checking. You do this step in part already, when you check to make sure the number of voters marked off in the poll book matches the number of ballots counted. A second step is less common among Wisconsin election clerks, but is recommended by the Wisconsin Elections Commission and by all professional elections authorities: Check to make sure the total number of votes in the top-of-the-ballot race is consistent with the number of ballots. During the municipal or county canvass, it should take no more than an hour at most to make sure that you are not certifying more votes than ballots, and that you notice any weirdly high undervote rates, which indicate possible machine malfunction. A rule of thumb is that the undervote rate in the top-of-the-ballot race should be no more than 0.5% (that is, no more than 1 in every 20 ballots contain no vote of any kind--regular, registered write-in, or scattering--for the top race.)

But checking for--and correcting--obvious tabulation errors does not prove that you're certifying the right winner. For that, you need to do a manual count of at least a valid sample of the ballots. This can be efficiently done by using modern methods of ballot sampling. The method most quickly gaining popularity among your counterparts in other states is called risk-limiting auditing. It was developed by the American Statistical Society has been widely accepted as effective and legitimate and was endorsed by the President's Commission on Elections Administration in 2014.

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.

Finally, very speedy and highly transparent manual counting of votes is possible with modern tools, specifically a document projector. By laying the ballots in a stack on the table, face up, underneath a document projector, only one person needs to touch the ballots while several people view each ballot simultaneously. Assigning two counters to each candidate provides the redundancy necessary for accuracy. Using this method (or a similar method involving projection of the digital ballots images saved by modern op-scan machines), Wisconsin election auditors have demonstrated that votes in a single race can be accurately counted at a rate of 100 ballots every four minutes.


WEC staff has been studying election-audit practices used in other states and can provide more information and guidance to local election officials who want to introduce auditing into the local canvass process. In addition, national elections administration authorities have developed guidance for election officials who want to produce verified accurate election results: