It happens all the time: Interview with the consultant who discovered the Medford miscount

I’ve told the story of the 2004 Medford, Wisconsin election miscount often enough that I figured it was time to call the people involved and get some first-hand details. Fortunately, the principals are still on the job: Bruce Strama is still Taylor County Clerk, despite having had to deal with what must be a clerk’s nightmare: telling more than 600 of his most partisan constituents he hadn’t counted their votes. The vendor had misprogrammed Medford’s voting machines to ignore straight-party-ticket votes on the November 2004 ballot, which included a presidential election. Strama didn't discover the problem, though. We can credit Mark Grebner for that, who is still with the political consulting firm that first noticed the anomaly while using Taylor County's election records to compile voter lists.

Medford-piecemissing.jpgSo I looked up Grebner’s firm, Practical Political Consulting, on the Internet and emailed him. I told him we were using his story as the opening attention-getter in our road show, and that I’d like to ask a few questions about his experience in Medford in March 2005. (That’s when his staff had noticed the previous November’s election results seemed to indicate that hundreds of Medford voters went to the poll only to cast unmarked ballots.)

About two hours later, my phone rang. I thanked him for calling back so quickly.

“Well, it wasn’t that quick,” Grebner said. “I had to look back through my emails to remind myself what happened in Medford.”

“Wow,” I replied. “If I’d discovered such a major error, I’d surely remember it!”

“Oh, this kind of thing happens all the time,” he said. “The details are always different, but there’s an endless number of ways the people who run our elections can botch them up. Every election has something.”

I glanced at my prepared questions and slid them into the wastebasket. Lordamighty, the guy who makes his living working with election records doesn’t even remember what I had considered a jaw-dropping discovery! Fortunately, I didn’t need to come up with new questions; Grebner was eager to talk.

“You want stories? I can tell you lots of stories.” he continued. “Everybody finds different ways not to follow the instructions.”

His firm has done most of its work in Michigan. They work with election records to create lists of voters’ names and addresses. Political campaigns use these lists for purposes such as sending flyers to only those homes where residents are likely to vote.

He recalled a precinct in Detroit that had a problem worse than Medford’s. Poll workers believed that ballots were to be inserted into the optical scan machine face down, but the machines were spitting them out. They called the city clerk’s office and were told to push the override button and insert the ballot again. That made the machine accept the ballots. The override button was pushed for every ballot cast that day. Problem solved.

Solved, that is, unless your definition of ‘solved’ includes counting the votes. The real problem, Grebner said, was that the voting machine could read ballots only if they were inserted face up.

TextBox.jpgBut not the only real problem, I thought. Another real problem is that no one noticed a precinct with zero votes until a political consultant came through to compile voter lists long after the election was over. But Grebner was already on to the next story.

Ottawa County, Michigan used the old lever-type machines, which fell out of favor because they required so much maintenance. They also didn’t create a record of every vote, but merely tracked the total in the same way mechanical odometers do. When you pulled the lever, your candidate’s total clicked up one vote.

The area is intensely Republican, Grebner explained, so in line with its desire to provide small, cheap government, the county board cut the clerk’s budget, and the clerk stopped maintaining the voting machines. Never mind that one machine lost the ability to roll the total over to 200. It would count the first 199 votes, jam up, and count no more.

“This didn’t hurt any Democratic candidates,” Grebner explained. “They never got more than 199 votes anyway. But you could see the Republican candidate always getting exactly 199 votes.” Grebner’s staff found the anomaly went back several years.

They informed the city clerk of the problem, assuming the usual: that no one had noticed before. Uh-uh. The clerk told them he'd known about it for a long time, but had done nothing. His attitude was, “If the county board wants the voting machines to work, they can restore my budget.” (Grebner assured me a call to the state elections board was taken more seriously.)

“You want more stories? I’ve got dozens,” Grebner offered. I’d pretty much caught his drift, so we went on to talk about why.

“Think about it,” he said. “In Wisconsin, you have what—1,800, 2,000 election officials?”

“In 72 counties, we have 1,851 municipalities responsible for administering elections,” I replied.

Think of how they’re trained, he said. Think of how they’re paid. What kind of supervision and oversight do they get? (In Wisconsin, the job of town clerk is often not even a full-time job, but I didn’t tell him that.)

“Each one can get his own idea of how things should work and stick with it,” Grebner said. “Who is going to know any different? Who is going to set them straight?

“The poll workers may be well-intentioned, but they don't always get selected for having good sense,” he pointed out.

“It’s ridiculous that I should be the one catching the errors. We should be counting our votes at least as well as we count money. Can you imagine if the Department of Corrections wasn’t sure how many inmates we are confining and how many we have released? If the Department of Administration couldn’t tell you how many state cars we own?

“Recounts always find errors, and no one blinks. It’s accepted. How long would a bank teller keep her job if her till was off by a few dollars every time someone checked?”

I asked if he was among those who believe we should dump electronic elections technology and go back to publicly hand-counted paper ballots.

The problem isn’t the machines,” he said. “Banks use machines for everything they do and we don’t mind. That’s because the banks don’t implicitly believe whatever their computers tell them. They check. They audit.”

“Votes are treated like they just don’t matter,” he continued. “It’s true in every state. It’s just not that important to get it right.”

*  *  *

This conversation certainly provides support for our campaign for post-election audits. It also gave me a lot to think about. In my experience, I’ve noticed only a few—a very few—Wisconsin election clerks who give the impression they don’t think it’s important to ‘get it right.’

The key to understanding this from the clerks' point of view, I suspect, is understanding what the ‘it’ is that they want to get right. In every election, there are hundreds of details clerks must get right—follow the latest registration law, make sure every name on the ballot is spelled correctly, make sure the polling place is accessible, that all the right notices are hung in the right place…on and on and on. Wisconsin’s election laws, regulations, and instructions prescribe dozens of processes our elections clerks must get right.

Unfortunately, our statutes contain no requirement to get the results right. Our current laws give that responsibility explicitly to no one. With computerized vote-tabulation, no matter who you are, getting the count right is someone else’s job—arguably, it's the vendor’s software programmer, but who knows who that is?

The scandal isn't that mistakes are being made. That's predictable. The scandal is that we've provided no one--including our election officials--with the responsibility to look for, find, and correct those mistakes.

Imagine a cargo-plane crew who have responsibility for a lot of complex, important tasks:  making sure the plane is maintained, fueled, and fully operational; loading the cargo correctly; and taking off and landing on time.

But the destination? Imagine that no human ever looks at the address labels on the cargo containers. A computer reads the labels as the containers are loaded and feeds the data to a navigational computer. The crew merely links the navigational computer to the autopilot and stands back. They’ll learn the destination when they get there. 

What airline could guarantee the correct delivery under those circumstances? This imaginary airline could at least count on the sender to notify them if the goods were delivered to the wrong recipient. But if it’s an election victory that is being delivered, the shippers—we, the voters—don’t know the correct destination any more than the flight crew. We can’t help them out. Neither they nor we will ever know if our votes were delivered to the correct candidate...unless the results are routinely verified.

Getting the totals right is common sense. It’s what we all want. It’s not that hard.

But as much as both we and our election officials want to get votes counted accurately, verifying the totals is not among the many things our system is currently designed to do. We need to fix that.

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