When the legislature voted to abolish the old Government Accountability Board in December 2015, it’s hard to describe how very low my expectations were for its replacement, the Wisconsin Elections Commission. Against unified opposition from citizens and media, Republican legislators destroyed our nationally admired nonpartisan panel of retired judges and replaced them with a panel of appointees selected in an openly partisan process. Independents like me have no representatives on the new Commission, nor do any third-party voters. I thanked my lucky stars that Wisconsin law still gives most direct responsibility for election accuracy to the counties. For the new WEC, I allowed myself to do no more than hope their designed-to-deadlock structure would keep them from making very many bad decisions.
Today I sat through a full-day meeting of the WEC. They made decisions regarding maintenance of the voter registration lists and certification of a redesigned voting-machine system. They discussed how to move ahead with electronic poll books. They reviewed the results of the latest round of voting-machine audits.
I saw no harm done. I saw no deadlocked decisions. I saw a few differences of opinion, but no naïve observer could have picked out the Republican appointees from the Democratic. And, Lord help me, as I observed them holding a voting-machine vendor’s feet to the fire about some less-than-user-friendly features of new voting-machine software, I found myself thinking, “I don’t remember the old GAB being this willing and able to stick up for the voters.”
Before anyone thinks I’ve gone soft, there are things I think they could be doing better. For example, while their desire to stand up for voters’ ability to cast valid votes was evident, an equal desire for evidence that those votes are counted accurately—in every election, recount or no—is not yet visible. But the members of the old GAB were only a little farther ahead in their interest in bringing routinely verified accuracy to Wisconsin election results, so we’re no worse off.
But back to the good news. The presence of two bona fide former election clerks on the new Commission—Beverly Gill, former Burlington municipal clerk, and Julie Glancy, former Sheboygan County Clerk—seems to be keeping it real when discussion turns to questions of how things will play out in the polling place.
For example, it was the former election clerks who really put the ES&S representatives through their paces in the demonstration of a new electronic ballot-marking device. Knowing how often voters are unclear about Wisconsin’s open partisan primary ballot, they made sure the ES&S representatives demonstrated that the machine worked for naïve voters without causing confusion or irritating delay. It didn’t. I won’t describe the problems, because I don’t need to. The Commissioners voted to certify the system only on the condition that the problems were fixed. In their discussion, I saw nothing but concern for the voters’ ability easily to cast a valid ballot. Zero partisanship. (To be fair, the Commissioner who looks to be most partisan based on his resume full of party offices wasn’t there today.)
In other actions, the Commission discussed the current effort to update the voter-registration lists by sending postcards to people who had not voted for four years and ‘deactivating’ those who did not respond. Their questions of staff revealed sincere concern about the possibility of purging legitimate voters as a result of the statutorily-required maintenance effort. They asked detailed questions about how many registrations would likely be deactivated, why, and for whom, and gave staff instructions about information they want to see in the report when the project is complete.
And when staff gave them the news that one older-model voting machine, the Optech Eagle, was discovered in both the recount (Marinette County) and in the voting-machine audits (Outagamie County) to have missed a significant number of votes in November's election, the Commissioners did not miss a beat before discussing decertification. Decertification would force the 140 municipalities that still use the machine immediately to replace it, and staff had not raised that possibility. Instead, staff described their efforts to get local election officials to use a work-around for the ballots most at risk of being miscounted, and to coax the municipalities into replacing the machines. That wasn’t enough for the Commissioners, who instructed staff to prepare a memo on a possible decertification plan for their next meeting, in September.
I'll soon get back to poking and prodding about bringing 21st-century elections verification practices to Wisconsin, and I won't go too much longer (right now, in fact) before I point out that I shuddered a little when the Commissioners accepted a flat "No" from the ES&S vice president in response to "Have any of your machines ever been hacked?"
In my happy dreams, the Commissioners would have responded to that evidence-free boast by asking "How do you know?" To which the honest answer would be, "We don't, really, because most states, like Wisconsin, don't check." And then the Commission would get Colorado or the Election Verification Network on the phone and get to work on promoting routine county canvass procedures that verify accuracy instead of just trusting in it.
Well, enough of that. Tonight, I'm pretty happy that this looks like a Commission that can probably give it some good thought when they get around to it.