Three Most Dangerous Vote-counting Myths

Pay an hour’s attention to the vote-counting debate and you’ll probably hear several myths.  From defenders of the status quo, you'll hear that the IT security systems of voting-machine companies like ES&S and Command Central are reliably able to stump hackers. (That must be why SonyAnthem, and Target have been begging them to work as their IT security consultants, right?)

From critics, you'll hear that widespread flaws indicate widespread fraud, even when those flaws look exactly like the predictable errors of lightly trained nonprofessionals who run complex election procedures four days a year with little supervision or corrective coaching from professionals.

Those myths are easily debunked with a moment’s serious thought. All you have to do is raise an eyebrow and a county board supervisor will realize our elections software is not safer with a Minnesota strip-mall voting-machine-service company than our medical records are with Anthem.  No dedicated League of Women Voters member has blind confidence in the infallibility of an elderly, 32-hours-a-year poll worker--particularly if the LWV member is an elderly, 32-hours-a-year poll worker.

However, there are other myths that more insistently keep otherwise intelligent people from thinking sensibly about vote-counting. I’m sure others can suggest more, but these are my top three.

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Myth: Election results are announced on Election Night. 

Fact: The numbers announced on Election Night are nothing more than raw computer output; they are preliminary. Elections officials have two to three more weeks before they have to sign the statement that will transform those numbers into final, official election results. There is a reason why statutes allow several weeks for the canvass process: It’s so the results can be reviewed to make sure they are correct. That’s what ‘canvass’ means.

An example of how this belief affects otherwise sensible citizens: Within a week following the April elections, I received a copy of a complaint filed with the state elections authority, the GAB, with a note asking for my comment and guidance. The complainant was demanding GAB investigate an apparent anomaly in the results reported on Election Night. I had to explain that the official election results didn’t even exist yet because the county boards of canvass were still working with them. I suggested the complainant contact the counties—particularly the county where the anomaly was most obvious—to ask that they review the results for accuracy. That’s their job, not GAB’s, and there was still time for them to do it right. Nope, he didn't want to talk to the county canvassers who were, at that moment, still supposed to be checking accuracy. He wanted to file a formal complaint with the State.

How this belief limits elections officials: If you review your monthly bank statements, you likely notice reversed entries from time to time. Your account might be credited with an incorrect deposit, then debited the same amount, and then credited with the deposit you actually made. You never pointed the error out to the bank; they found it and corrected it themselves. This likely makes you more, not less, trusting of the bank’s integrity and competence.

But talk to any elections official and you are likely to find an intense fear that the opposite is true for them--that they would be crucified for admitting an error. They could be right. For exercising the same sort of quality management for which other managers are praised, elections officials likely face criticism. And this affects their behavior: you won't catch many election officials reminding people that Election-Night reports are subject to change if any miscounts are detected.

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Myth:  Voting machines can and should be expected to produce the correct results the first time and every time.

Fact: Computers are manufactured, programmed, maintained, and operated by always-fallible, sometimes-dishonest humans and their output must routinely be checked for accuracy, no matter how much confidence we have in the people who run them.

I’ll let one federal judge speak for all who sleep easy with their childlike faith: “The machine…relies on an objective tabulating machine that admits of no discretion to count votes.  If a voter casts a vote according to the instructions, the machine will count it.” (U.S. Court of Appeals, 11th Circuit, Touchstone and Shepperd vs. McDermott, Dec. 6, 2000)

It’s easy to ridicule that sort of digital-age naiveté, but I see the same blind faith in the perfectibility of computers among some election-integrity activists—specifically those who argue that open-source code is the solution to our woes. What they don't seem to realize is that on that wonderful day when our voting machines are loaded with open-source software, nothing new will be preventing errors on the part of the person who sets the machine up for each election and nothing new will be improving the performance of those who test that set-up. Nothing new will be in place to prevent ink transfer and dust bunnies from voting. Nothing new will be in place to make sure someone has the time and skill to examine the open-source software in each voting machine, or to do anything about it if they see a problem. Open-source programming is merely decorative if people don't routinely check the output for accuracy, and if people routinely check the output for accuracy, it won't matter whether the programming is open-source or proprietary. 

The voting-machine regulators have also been seduced by this myth. In 2013, I sat through a two-hour debate during which state elections board, their staff, county representatives, and voting-machine vendors argued about whether to require Brown County to purchase a separate computer to support its new voting machines, or to allow the clerk to rely in part on a shared county computer. Given a chance to comment, I suggested that Brown County be allowed to use the system it wanted as long as it checked to make sure its results were accurate, an effort that would catch not just any miscounts created by the shared-computer arrangement but by dozens of other possible causes. I was ignored, and Brown County was ordered to increase its election-administration costs by several thousand dollars.

With this new system, I'm sure that Brown County officials won’t notice any miscounts. Just like their teenage sons never notice any dirty underwear or dried-out pizza crusts under their beds--and likely for the same reason.

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And the winner is:

Myth: It’s somebody else’s job to make sure our votes are counted correctly. 

Fact: No one is standing between any electronic miscounts that might affect Election-Night output and our certified-final election results. Clerks, citizens, candidates—everyone—needs to do what he or she can to help detect and correct miscounts.

When I was a little girl, I remember my dad coming home from work complaining, “The whole world can fall apart and those people don’t care as long as none of the pieces land on their desk.” That attitude is still around. My personal collection:

  • A municipal clerk: “We don't check the vote totals in the pre-election tests. We don’t need to. GAB wouldn’t have approved the equipment if it didn’t count right.” 
  • GAB staff: “Every municipality conducts a pre-election test of its voting equipment, which ensures the accuracy of every piece of voting equipment in the state.”
  • A municipal clerk: “If we notice an anomaly on Election Night, we note it for the county board of canvass. It’s their job to correct any miscounts.”
  • A board of canvass member: “We trust the results sent to us by the municipal canvass and would never unseal the ballot bags for any reason.”  
  • A county board supervisor: “If any election results seem suspicious, the county clerk would surely check them even if the results are outside the statutory recount margin.” 
  • A county clerk (in that same county): “I am really not interested in doing a recount for candidates (whose results fall outside) the guidelines of state statutes.”
  • An election-integrity activist: “The political parties should care enough to send observers to the pre-election tests.”
  • A political-party activist: “We’re too busy with get-out-the-vote efforts to spend any time observing voting-machine stuff. You election integrity people will need to do that.”

People who are standing around pointing at each other saying, “It’s his job, not mine,” might be glitch-governed people, or error-governed people, or hacker-governed people. But they cannot honestly think of themselves as self-governing people.  

Citizens who are serious about their right to self-government and the diligent public officials who serve them need to educate themselves about the risks of electronic elections technology. Local elections officials need to adopt prudent management practices, and citizens need to be willing to show up.  

There’s no way around it: we have to do it ourselves.

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