Inaccurate preliminary vote totals are not a problem--if miscounts
are detected and fixed before election results are declared final.
The problem is, as these incidents show, that Wisconsin's local election officials
are making no effort to detect and correct even obvious miscounts.
Have the hackers noticed that yet?
* * *
Following December's presidential recount, when county clerks reported corrected vote totals to the Wisconsin Elections Commission, they changed at least 17,681 votes from the totals they had previously reported.
Ward by ward, candidates sometimes got more votes, sometimes less. We don't know the full number of miscounted votes, because if recounters both subtracted and added votes to one candidate's total in a single ward, only the net change showed up in the revised totals. Election researchers at the UW-Madison, Harvard, and MIT worked with the data and estimated that in the original results, more than 1 in every 170 votes had been miscounted. *
If you can think of a way to miscount a valid vote, it's likely that somewhere a Wisconsin vote was miscounted like that.
The recount discovered hundreds of absentee ballots still in their envelopes, uncounted on Election Day.
Write-in votes had been treated with extraordinary carelessness. The recount discovered that 1 in every 7 of Evan McMullin's voters had been disenfranchised in the original count. Typos had erased nearly half the votes in precincts in Oneida and Milwaukee Counties. Votes had been double-counted in Eau Claire County.
The miscounts in Marinette, Outagamie, and Racine Counties are of particular interest to those who wonder whether Wisconsin's local election officials are attentive, prudent IT managers.
Those counties and others used a voting machine called the "Optech Eagle." This was once the workhorse of Wisconsin elections, but it never could read votes unless they were marked in an ink that contained carbon.
It didn't read non-carbon ink in 2016, either, when tens of thousands of voters submitted absentee ballots they had marked someplace other than a polling booth equipped with an approved marking device.
So on Election Night, results indicated that Racine County voters were weirdly uninterested in the presidential race. Across the rest of the state, only about 1 in every 130 voters (0.77%) left their ballots blank for president. But in Racine County, almost 1.8% of the ballots were counted as if they were blank. In the City of Racine, the rate was even higher--2.6%. In individual Racine County precincts, up to 1 in every 12 ballots was counted as blank.
In Outagamie County, too, Optech Eagles were telling election officials that dozens of voters had cast no vote for president. In one municipality there, the machine saw no vote for president on more than 1.4% of the ballots.
The machines in the City of Marinette took the prize. The machine that counted ballots cast by absentee voters in the City of Marinette's 7th and 8th Wards printed out results indicating no presidential vote on 9.6% of the ballots. The machine counting Wards 1, 3, and 5 saw no votes on 26.5% of the ballots.
And the machine counting Wards 2, 4, and 6 saw no presidential vote on 30.8% of the ballots it attempted to count.
To their discredit, local election officials either did not notice these obvious errors, or noticed them but chose not to correct them. Officials in these counties signed legal documents attesting that they had reviewed the election results and found them to be "correct and true." But in fact, they hadn't done that at all. At least not until the recount forced them to.
Marinette officials, who conducted their recount by hand, corrected their miscount in the recount. Outagamie officials recounted using the same machines and therefore did not detect their miscount until ordered to do a biennial voting-machine audit in January. By then, it was too late to correct the official vote totals.
Racine County officials still haven't resolved their weird vote totals. They recounted by machine and so certified the bizarre vote totals twice--once after the election and once after the recount--without ever checking to see why they were so weird. In fact, county election officials were so determined to trust unexamined computer output that they refused to check accuracy even after the machines could be seen to be visibly miscounting during the recount.
To their credit, staff of the Wisconsin Elections Commission took steps to figure out what was going on. In January, they asked Outagamie County to send their election materials, including the ballots, to Madison so that staff could examine them and make sure the miscounts were what everyone suspected: an inability to read the ink that many voters used to mark their ballots.
They concluded that ink almost certainly contributed to the miscounts, but that didn't explain all the missed votes. WEC staff concluded “This exercise did not produce a result that allowed staff with confidence to understand how the Optech Eagle treated these ballots.”
Something else, in addition to ink color, was going on, and they couldn't tell what it was.
In June, staff wrote a memo to Commission members, telling them "“The analysis of the performance of the Optech Eagle identified a significant limitation of the equipment.”
The Commission itself then did the right thing, too. They instructed staff to prepare a plan for decertifying the machine, to be decided next Tuesday at their September 26 meeting.
When the Optech Eagle is decertified, it will be illegal to use in Wisconsin. Municipalities will be forced to upgrade to newer machines with enhanced ability to count votes marked in any ink. And that will make our elections a little safer from miscounts. Professor Douglas W. Jones, of the University of Iowa Computer Sciences Department told me: "I've tested the newer machines with everything that I can imagine a voter using. Even glitter pens work, though I still wouldn't recommend them."
We cannot overlook the fact that two failures produced these miscounted election results.
First, the machines miscounted.
Second, local election officials certified those miscounts as "correct and true" anyway.
Replacing the unreliable voting machines with new ones will solve one limited problem. But no sensible person believes that no voting machine will ever again miscount Wisconsin votes. No computer system can do that, particularly when the computers are scattered among every Wisconsin city, village, and town; managed by an army of IT-naive temporary staff; and for which security is a responsibility split among vendors, service technicians, and local election officials.
How many elections did those old machines miscount before the recount revealed the problem to the general public?
And why didn't Wisconsin's election officials notice and correct this problem sooner?
Here's why: Statutes provide Wisconsin's local election officials with a review period following every election, called the 'canvass' during which they can review accuracy before they declare the election results final.
But the election officials don't actually review accuracy. Most clerks are more polite than you see on that Racine County video, but they all place the same blind faith in computer-calculated vote totals. Wisconsin's local election officials just point to the computer print-out and say "Oh, look who won."
On Election Night, when the City of Marinette machines produced such weird numbers, poll workers noted tabulation problems in their Election-Night written reports. Yet neither the city nor county clerks took corrective action. They knowingly certified results that were obviously missing hundreds of votes.
You won't find a county canvass anywhere in Wisconsin that does better. The Dane County clerk will tell you he's the only clerk in the state who checks machines' accuracy after every election (2 machines). But if you press, he will admit he doesn't do that during the canvass. He waits until after he has already legally sworn that the results are accurate and has declared them final.
If the WEC decides to decertify next Tuesday, we commend them for taking action to solve the Optech Eagle part of the problem. We are also asking that they take steps to solve the other half: we are asking the WEC to provide the county canvasses with more specific instructions and stronger encouragement to verify accuracy before certifying election results.
More than 20 other states have already built some kind of verification into their canvass procedures, and they do not declare election results final until they have confirmed accuracy. Wisconsin is no better off than states with paperless touchscreens if all we do is seal our paper ballots in bags and never use them to verify the vote totals.
At the very least, Wisconsin's county clerks need to begin to use simple, routine 'reasonability tests,' which are simple calculations they can do at their desks to look for vote totals that don't make any sense--and then resolve any anomalies they see.
If we have any dedicated county clerks who want to take the lead to bring Wisconsin's canvass procedures into the 21st Century, (ask yours!) our statutes already allow that clerk to adopt whatever canvass procedures he or she wants. National authorities stand ready to help with the implementation of modern methods of election auditing.
There is no reason for Wisconsin voters to continue to trust our right to self-government to anonymous computer programmers or whoever hacked in behind them, or to hope that some IT Fairy Godmother will from now on protect our voting machines from any more glitches.
Our election clerks could be checking accuracy if they chose to--and we need to insist that they do.
* Stephen Ansolabehere, Harvard University; Barry C. Burden and Kenneth R. Mayer, UW-Madison; Charles Stewart III, Massachusetts Institute of Technology - Learning from Recounts, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Political Science Department Research Paper No. 2017-12. July 2017.