Evidence of miscounting in Wisconsin's 2016 Presidential Election

Several other places found miscounts when they checked their presidential vote totals with hand counts.

We cannot expect that every single vote will be accurately counted. A few votes will always be ambiguously marked, a few ballots processed incorrectly for one reason or another. That's why Wisconsin statutes make it pretty easy for candidates who lose elections by less than 0.25% of the votes to get recounts. We don't want winners chosen by small, random errors.

However, miscounts larger than 0.25% are not supposed to happen. That's why Wisconsin statutes make candidates who lose elections by more than that pay for the recount themselves if they want one. We don't want taxpayers to have to finance recounts in which the winner won't change when the random errors are fixed.

Despite the accuracy standard in the state's recount law, Wisconsin's 2016 recount found error rates in many jurisdictions larger than 0.25%. The most frequent were human errors when tabulating write-in votes. Inaccurate write-in totals were found in nearly every county. Statewide on Election Night, election inspectors had missed 15.6%, or more than 1 in every 7, of the votes for Evan McMullin, the most popular write-in candidate.

But worrisome electronic miscounts were found, too, particularly with one model of voting machine, the Optech Eagle.

For their Election Day count, the City of Marinette had used three Optech Eagles to process their mailed-in, early, and absentee ballots. Marinette County conducted its recount manually and discovered that the three machines had missed a significant number of valid votes. One voting machine failed to detect votes on 30.8% of the ballots. The undervote rate had been obvious on the poll tapes printed out on Election Night, and recount minutes note that the poll workers had noted problems with the machines.

However, both the municipal and the county canvass originally certified the miscounted results, and did not correct them until forced to do so by the recount.

City of Marinette Ballots counted by Optech Eagle, November 8, 2016

Election-night opscan poll tapes,
(Absentee/early/paper ballots only)

Wards 1,3,5

Wards 2,4,6

Wards 7, 8

Total

Number of ballots counted by the Optech Eagle 1

555

416

303

1,274

Undervotes reported on the poll tape1

147

128

292

304

 

 

 

 

 

Percent of ballots read as blank by the voting machine

26.5%

30.8%

9.6%

23.86%

1 – From the poll tapes, which were included in the Marinette County recount minutes.

2 – The number appears to be 39 on the poll tape photocopied in the recount minutes, but the text of the recount minutes says 29. If the correct figure is 39, the blank-ballot rate is 12.9%, or about 1 in every 8 ballots.

Marinette and WEC officials attributed the miscount to the inability of the Optech Eagle to count any votes marked in ink not containing carbon. However, this does not explain why the miscount rate varied so greatly among the three precincts. Absentee ballots would have been marked either at a single location (the municipal clerk’s office) or at home, providing no apparent reason why voters in one precinct would have used incorrect pens at more than three times the rate of voters in another. 

Following the recount, in January 2017, WEC ordered a few manual voting-machine audits in randomly selected municipalities where counties had used computers in the recount. Three Optech Eagle machines were selected.

One of these was the Village of Hortonville in Outagamie County. When 1,051 ballots were counted by hand, after having been counted on Election Day and in the recount by Optech Eagles, 15 previously uncounted votes were found, revealing an error rate of 1.42%, or 1 in every 70 votes. Both city and county officials attempted to discover the cause of this miscount, as did WEC staff. None could clearly ascertain the cause of the miscount, and WEC staff concluded “This exercise did not produce a result that allowed staff to understand how the Optech Eagle treated these ballots with confidence,” and “The analysis of the performance of the Optech Eagle identified a significant limitation of the equipment.”

A second manual audit of an Optech Eagle, conducted by the City of Eau Claire, found an error rate of 0.35%, according to material submitted by the City to the WEC. While less serious than the other miscounts, this is still larger than the 0.25% error rate anticipated in statute, and so should be considered unacceptable.

WEC has issued a strong warning to jurisdictions that continue to use the Optech Eagle. Most miscounts that could be diagnosed were caused by the type of ink used to mark the ballots. As a result, the WEC is strongly recommending that election officials recopy all mailed-in ballots onto new ballots, and cast the copied ballots rather than the originals.

Signs that Racine County certified incorrect Presidential vote totals.

Racine County used Optech Eagles to count more than 98% of its ballots on both Election Day and in the recount. If Racine County's Optech Eagles had miscounted on Election Day for the reason the Wisconsin Election Commission believes they miscounted elsewhere--that is, an inability to read the ink in which many mailed-in ballots were marked--Racine's votes would have been miscounted both times.

Therefore, it will take a manual count to determine whether votes were counted correctly. Only one Optech Eagle used in Racine County has been checked with a hand count.  The Village of Mount Pleasant in Racine County was the third Optech Eagle selected by WEC for a manual voting machine audit. When 1,877 ballots were manually counted, 16 previously uncounted votes were found, for an error rate of 0.83%.

But what about those Racine results that no one has yet checked for accuracy?

Voters are not required to vote in every race on the ballot. In the 2016 election, about one in every 130 Wisconsin voters who cast ballots, or 0.77%, chose not to vote for president.

Undervote rates--the percentage of ballots on which the voting machines detected no presidential vote--much higher than the overall statewide rate could be a sign of miscounts of the same type discovered in Marinette, Hortonville, Eau Claire, and Mount Pleasant.

And Racine County's certified results do contain such a sign. In fact, results from 61 of Racine County's 68 polling places show undervote rates higher than the statewide rate.

Countywide,  the Board of Canvass certified election results that included no presidential vote for 1.78% of the ballots countywide—more than twice the statewide undervote rate.

Within the City of Racine, certified results indicate no presidential vote was counted from 2.6% of the ballots. This result can be true only if 1 in every 38 City of Racine voters chose not to vote for president.

Results for six precincts are even higher—more than five times the statewide blank-ballot rate, up to one ballot in every 12 being counted without a vote for president.

Racine County Reporting Units with recount-certified results
indicating blank-ballot rates more than 5 times the statewide rate

 

Municipality / Ward

Percentage of ballots from which no presidential vote was counted

City of Racine, Ward 26

8.2%

Village of Elmwood Park, Ward 1

5.7%

City of Racine, Ward 35

4.5%

City of Racine, Ward 1

4.0%

City of Racine, Ward 5

3.9%

City of Racine, Ward 25

3.9%

Finally, there is some direct-observation evidence that Racine County's voting machines were miscounting. During the recount, observers were able to see each ballot well enough to count votes as the ballots were fed into the voting machines. In several precincts, the observers saw more votes than the machines counted. Their observations were consistent with the types of miscounts now documented in other jurisdictions.

However, when the observers reported these findings to the county officials, county officials refused to check the machines' accuracy, even in a precinct with fewer than 350 ballots. The request for a hand count to verify accuracy was energetically refused, as a deputy county clerk declared "I don't care if it's only five (ballots). I am not going to do a hand count for anybody."

Voter confidence, and our right to self-government itself, demands accurate vote-counting.

Neither voters nor election officials should shrug off such clear and serious signs of miscounted election results.

Even if they did not change the outcome this time, miscounts in excess of the 0.25% error rate written into in Wisconsin's recount law are dangerous. If we allow miscounts larger than that to remain undetected and uncorrected, we create a situation in which election results can be both wrong--if an error rate of more than 0.25% changed the outcome--and not subject to recount unless the 'losing' candidate can raise a lot of cash very quickly.

To sustain voter confidence, our election officials must adopt a responsible, managerial attitude toward accuracy.

They cannot continue to be unwilling to resolve well-founded suspicions of miscounted votes.

 

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