Three things to do TODAY to protect Wisconsin's November elections

MunicipalClerkinCyberspace_copy.jpgDon’t let anyone fool you: Even with paper ballots, Wisconsin’s elections are subject to the same big security risks that national experts warn about.

Our vote-counting software is manufactured and updated by secretive private corporations, from whom even Congress can’t get straight answers about internal security practices. Before and after every election, control of the software passes from vendor to county clerk to municipal clerk to polling place and back again—with no one in charge of overall security. None of our election officials have the expertise to oversee the updates and maintenance performed by the companies' technicians. Local election officials, bless their hearts, are so far from being IT sophisticates that most actually believe their voting machines will be 100% accurate as long as they never knowingly connect them to the Internet, and that pre-election voting machine tests can detect hacking designed to operate only on Election Day.

None of that would be a serious threat if Wisconsin's election officials used our paper ballots to detect and correct any miscounted vote totals. But they don’t. They certify the winners in Wisconsin elections without ever checking the Election-Night voting-machine tapes against the Election-Day ballots.

This doesn’t need to be the case. Wisconsin’s November 2018 elections could be much more secure than our previous ones, even with the technology we now have. This additional security can cost little or nothing more than we've spent on previous elections.

In brief: County and municipal clerks need to conduct simple voting-machine audits during the county canvass. They don’t do that now.

In about half the other states, local clerks routinely conduct some sort of voting-machine audits during the canvass—the period right after an election, before they declare results final. Some are more thorough than others, but Wisconsin clerks don’t do any at all

That is the biggest security hole in Wisconsin elections. Our local election officials trust the computers so completely that they don't even attempt to detect any Election-Day vote miscounts. If they do not detect them, they cannot correct them, and hackers or glitches win.

The good news is how easily and cheaply this hole can be patched. Statutes tell our county clerks and boards of canvass to review the election results before they certify them, but don’t prescribe specifics about how they are to do that. Wisconsin voters need to  demand that our county election officials choose rigorous canvass procedures, not sloppy or incomplete ones. 

What do good canvass procedures look like? That is, how does a county clerk check to see whether the voting machines counted correctly? Read on...

First, Make sure your county clerk understands: Voters want verified accuracy, and the clerk can open ballot bags during the canvass.

The first time you call your county clerk to say "This voter wants you to verify the results with an audit during the canvass," he or she will probably say, “I cannot do a hand-counted audit because I’m not allowed to open the ballot bags after they are sealed on Election Night.”

If that's the response you get, tell your county clerk to call the Wisconsin Elections Commission to get the facts. The WEC will tell them that if they carefully maintain the integrity of the ballots, they can use them to audit before they declare election results final.

Some clerks probably do genuinely believe they are prohibited from looking at the ballots. Others likely use it as an excuse to avoid work. Either way, that belief has no basis in statute, in practice, or in common sense. Local election clerks have opened ballot bags during the canvass many times in the past, and it’s an absurd idea that the legal custodian of a public record is forbidden to look at it.

If election officials continue to refuse to look at the paper ballots, Wisconsin’s elections are barely more secure than those in states that use paperless machines. 

Second, Contact the Wisconsin Elections Commission and encourage them to use the scheduled 2018 voting-machine audits to improve election security.

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The WEC can be contacted at any time and welcomes public comments. You can reach them via email at elections@wi.gov; phone at (608) 266-8005, or by tweeting to @WI_Elections.  Your message can be simple: tell them you want them to promote audits during the county canvass as proposed by Wisconsin Election Integrity. They know what to do.

National discussion of election security focuses on something called ‘risk-limiting auditing,’ or RLA. This is a very efficient process. The WEC is studying it, and it is almost certainly in Wisconsin’s future.  But the WEC will not have any RLA instructions ready for the November elections and few if any county clerks are willing to figure it out on their own. RLA in Wisconsin will have to wait until 2019 or later.

The good news is that since 2006, state law has required the state elections agency to order local clerks to check a few voting machines with hand-counted audits, following November elections. As done in past elections, these voting-machine audits have some good features and a few serious limitations. 

Just a few tweaks to the voting-machine audits planned for 2018 would give Wisconsin a start on the type of auditing that can protect our elections from interference:

  • The old instructions allowed the audits to be delayed until after election results were certified. For the 2018 voting-machine audits, the instructions should tell the clerks to audit during the county canvass, while errors can still be corrected.
  • In previous years, WEC randomly selected the voting machines in a way that left some counties with no audited machines. But because Wisconsin’s voting machines are programmed separately for each county, hackers might be deterred by auditing even one randomly-selection voting machine in each county. The WEC could select two machines in each of Wisconsin's 72 counties without ordering many more voting machine audits than they've done in the past (100, out of more than 3,500 machines.) Of course, increasing the sample size even more would improve security and voter confidence.
  • The old audit instructions told the hand counters to try to read the votes the same way the machines did. In 2018 WEC should tell them to count votes the same way they would in a recount, paying attention to voter intent rather than trying to match the machine’s totals.
  • The old instructions prescribe an inefficient hand-counting method that is very hard for observers to follow. The instructions for the 2018 audits should inform clerks about hand-counting methods that are more efficient and transparent.
  • Instructions for the 2018 voting-machine audits should stress that any clerks can use them anytime they want, even if they are not selected in WEC’s random sample.

These stopgap measures won't provide complete election security or solve any problems in the long run. Wisconsin voters would be justified in demanding a lot more. Voters in Colorado, New Mexico, Rhode Island, and Virginia now or will soon have their votes protected by valid audits that verify the correct winners. The measures described above—checking only two voting machines in each county—would be an embarrassing step backward in election security in many other states.

But they will provide more protection than Wisconsin votes get now. We need to demand at least that much for the November elections.

So call your county clerk. Say you want election audits during the canvass, and that you don’t want any more elections certified without checking for miscounts. Then call the Wisconsin Elections Commission and tell them to make the needed changes in the 2018 voting machine audits.

Third: Please help us get the word out to other Wisconsin voters by making a one-time donation to the publicity project.

This blog post is going to reach only a tiny fraction of Wisconsin voters. Most who it reaches already understand the problem. We've been trying to educate voters for five years now, with no budget--and little success. We've learned that to educate the not-yet-informed voters, we’re going to have to use paid media—things like mailers to community leaders and social media advertising. During June, we’re conducting a fund-raising drive to get this done. Please visit our fundraising page and contribute!

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