For the Press

First of all, thank you for covering the risks and safeguards related to secure, accurate election results.

Our voting rights don't stop when we cast our ballots, although press coverage of the issues traditionally has. Voting rights include having our votes counted accurately, and we are glad you're on the story!

What election officials can tell you about security...and what they cannot

Reporter.jpgProfessional-level IT skills are prerequisite for neither the job of municipal nor county clerk. Do not expect election officials to be able to speak with much depth and understanding about IT-related matters. 

Even at the top, staff of the Wisconsin Elections Commission has not until recently included anyone with professional-level education or experience in IT.  The state elections agency does, however, get good support from the State of Wisconsin Division of Enterprise Technology.

But State responsibilities are limited to WisVote, the voter-registration system. Neither WEC nor DET have direct responsibility for the design, creation, updating, maintenance, operation or security of the vote-tabulation system (that is, the voting machines). Therefore, they will not be able to speak about voting-machine security in anywhere near the depth and authority with which they can speak about the WisVote system.

Here are some things you will hear from Wisconsin's election officials, and what your follow-up questions should include:

  • "The voting systems are federally certified."
    Election clerks will mention this, but will not be able to answer any follow-up questions about the federal certification criteria relating to security (as opposed to accessibility, reliability, etc.); controversies regarding the current value of outdated federal certification standards; and how exactly years-old federal certification of the design of each system protects the actual machines and software used in the next election. (It doesn't).
  • "The voting systems are certified by the state elections agency."
    As with federal certification, local election officials are typically unaware that state certification is based on whether the systems meet standards in Wisconsin law, which focus on features other than security. Contact WEC staff for more information. If you are interested in a particular system (such as AVC Edge or M-100), ask about the security criteria used at the time the system was certified.
  • "Voting machines are never connected to the Internet."
    Don't count on local election officials to mention that their voting machines are programmed with software that originates in the vendors' computers, the security of which the local officials have no knowledge. Neither state nor local officials can speak authoritatively about the security of the software at any time before it comes into their possession before each election.
    Also be aware that the individual voting machines communicate (either wirelessly or by use of portable digital media) with a central county elections-management computer. Wisconsin officials do not inspect these county computers for remote access software, and therefore cannot know for sure whether they are connected to the Internet. 
  • "Every machine is publicly tested before each election."
    Municipal clerks reliably perform voting-machine tests required by s.5.84, Wis. Stats within 10 days before every election. Most genuinely believe these tests would detect hacked software. In reality, the tests fall far short of any standards for computer "logic and acceptance testing" (LAT) used outside elections and are useless in deterring or detecting hacks.
    Two of the many limitations are: 1) No effort is made to fool the voting machines into thinking they are counting votes on Election Day, and some machines are even deliberately tested in a test mode. Because malicious code would be designed to operate only on Election Day and in Election-Day mode, a test done on any other day could not detected a hack. 2) Municipal clerks also typically cast only one vote for each candidate in the pre-election test, so that if the machine was programmed to 'flip' votes--that is, county one candidate's votes for another and vice-versa (a predictable programming error, if not a hack), the pre-election test could not detect it.
  • "We verify that the machines counted correctly on Election Night, and double-check during the canvass."
    If you hear this from an elections official, ask a follow-up question to clarify whether they are talking about ballots or votes. All Wisconsin jurisdictions routinely check and double-check that ballots were counted correctly; none routinely check that votes were counted correctly during their canvass.
    Verifying that machines counted ballots correctly (but not votes) is equivalent to a bank verifying that an ATM counted the correct number of transactions, without verifying that the dollars were debited/credited to the correct accounts. For voting machines, ask the elections officials whether they check that the votes were credited to the correct candidates.
    County canvasses also typically double-check their addition of the vote totals from the precincts' results tapes, but they do not check the accuracy of the vote totals printed on any of the voting machines' output tapes.
  • "The state orders voting-machine audits."
    These voting machine audits, as they were performed before this year, serve no election-security function. Among other limitations, they occurred only after November elections in even-numbered years; included only about 100 of the state's 3,500 voting machines, and were completed only after the election results were certified final--too late to correct any miscounts detected and therefore too late to deter hacking. And those were only a few of their limitations as a security measure.

The key security question to ask local election officials:

"As you sign the certification statement, how do you know the voting machines credited all the votes to the correct candidates' totals?"

Probe for more information for any answers that would make you uncomfortable if you heard them from a banker explaining how he or she knows the ATMs credited deposits to the correct accounts.

For more information, contact us at or call WEI Coordinator Karen McKim at 608-212-5079.

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