Most local government officials don’t resist taking responsibility for the accuracy of their own department’s work product.
No city treasurer would refuse to check accuracy of property-tax bills.
No county executive would release a report on annual expenditures without double-checking accuracy.
These managers don't need state laws specifically requiring accuracy. They know it’s just part of being a responsible manager.
But the Wisconsin County Clerks Association is officially on record: They don’t want to check accuracy of their work product. And their work product is our election results.
The WCCA statement came in response to the Wisconsin Elections Commission’s September announcement that they were considering two measures to improve election security.
The first measure involved once-every-two-years voting-machine audits. Municipal clerks perform these audits of individual voting machines. They are the only accuracy checks that the Commission has authority to order, but they have limited value. Not only are they limited to November elections in even-numbered years, they check only a few random voting machines, without confirming that the right winners were identified in any race.
But municipal voting-machine audits are better than nothing. So the Commission said it was considering ordering the municipal clerks to audit more machines than in previous years and would require the audits to be completed before election results are declared final.
The second measure would move Wisconsin slightly toward compliance with national standards for election security. The Commission said it was considering encouraging county clerks to perform more thorough election audits of the type recommended by election-security authorities.
Response from the WCCA was swift, naïve, and irresponsible. The county clerks let the Commission know they were okay with ordering the municipal clerks to do more voting-machine audits, but they didn’t want the Commission requiring, or even encouraging, the county clerks to perform genuine election audits.
Perhaps sensing they are on the losing end of a national trend (they are), the WCCA also described how it wants audits restricted:
- These election managers don't wanna check accuracy until after they have certified the election results.
- These election managers don't wanna check accuracy for any but the top race on the ballot.
- And they want the State to pay extra if it even suggests they check accuracy.
I’m not making that up. The organization’s memo to the Wisconsin Elections Commission is reproduced, verbatim, below.
In their rush to deny normal managerial responsibility, the WCCA got confused about the purpose of “evidence.” They wrote that our paper ballots “should be treated like evidence and remain undisturbed” until after the clerks have reached their verdict and waited to see if anyone would ask for a recount. Let’s hope the Trial Judges Association doesn’t follow suit and claim that they, too, don’t need to look at the evidence until after they’ve reached their verdict and know whether anyone is going to appeal.
The WCCA’s message that only the top race on the ballot should be verified could be restated: “If you want us to protect the US Senate election, forget about protecting the Governor’s election.” And hackers, of course, are delighted to know ahead of time which race is off limits to manipulation, and which races are still on an honor system.
Because they do not consider checking accuracy a routine managerial responsibility, the county clerks demand the state pay them to verify election results. Again, putting this demand in the mouth of any other local government manager is revealing. Imagine a county parks manager telling the county budget manager: “I signed off on this accounting of the user fees the Parks Department collected this quarter. If you want me to ensure accuracy, you'll need to pay extra.”
For their final flourish, the clerks denied their ability to conduct accurate hand counts and misrepresented the findings of a study conducted by researchers from MIT, Harvard, and the UW Madison (Learning from Recounts, 2017). The WCCA memo claimed the researchers had declared that “hand counts of election results are inherently inaccurate.”
Compare that to the researchers’ actual words: “...careful hand counting in a recount is the gold standard for assessing the true vote totals — in large part because of the greater focus on a single contest, more deliberate processing of ballots, and careful observation by campaign officials and other interested parties....” The researchers ultimately expressed no preference for either method of counting, concluding: "ballots originally counted by computer ... appear to be at least as accurate as ballots originally counted by hand."
* * *
Vote-tabulating computers are no different than any other computer, so it’s delusional to imagine that election results do not need to be checked for accuracy. Many people have the motive, means, and opportunity to tamper with election results—starting with the hundreds who have authorized access though voting-machine vendors and service companies. And then we have to consider the mundane risks of human programmer/operator error and random malfunction.
But municipal clerks cannot verify results in federal, state, and county races; they have access to the ballots from only their own city, village, or town. And the WEC is the legal custodian of no ballots at all; has only a few days after county certification before they must certify; and has no statutory authority to question results the county has certified.
Wisconsin statutes give county clerks the buck-stops-here responsibility for election results’ accuracy.
We must insist the county clerks accept that responsibility. They have the paper ballots. They have the time. Modern election-audit practices would allow them to verify a few races on the ballot in just two or three days, at most, out of the two weeks that statutes allow them before they must certify the election. The only cost would be the hand-counters’ time at $10 or $12 an hour—a tiny fraction of the county’s elections-administration budget. They could randomly select just a few races for verification—just enough to deter election thieves in the races most liable to attract their interest.
And yet, collectively, they refuse.
Now, the bright notes: As the WCCA memo states, a few county clerks have begun voluntarily to incorporate hand-counted audits into their routine canvass procedures. Better yet, the Commission ignored the WCCA's whining and voted unanimously to encourage county clerks to start auditing during their canvass.
As a result, every county clerk in Wisconsin received a memo on October 4 explaining the current nationwide move to election auditing and providing the clerks with instructions on how to get started.
Only voters, though, can make it happen. Voters who care about election security should contact their county clerk to find out whether their votes in future elections will be protected with hand-counted audits during the county canvass.
If not, the next election on February 19 will provide an excellent opportunity for your clerk to begin developing routine election-audit practices, since it will likely be a low-turnout election. Your county clerk has plenty of time before February to learn about the various methods of checking accuracy and work out his or her local procedures.
Insist on it.