Think of it as a critical administrative task, not a challenge to preliminary results

Verifying voting-machines output before declaring election results final is such a no-brainer, I find myself spending significant brain power trying to figure out why so many people cannot see that.

Take the computer out of the voting machine and into any other office in county government...or city government, or state, federal, private business or even your own home, and no one would dream of using its output to make a decision even half as consequential as who will govern us before they have verified the computer output was correct. Stick it in a voting machine, and everyone (except probably the hackers) sees it as some sort of Greek Oracle--whatever it prints out Must Be The Truth.

FourFatesCartoon.jpgIt's occurred to me that one problem might be that we all get caught up in elections as contests--this side versus that side. When preliminary results are announced on Election Night, those tagged as winners want to celebrate. The head-spinning rapidity with which candidates concede to unaudited computer tape may be a good indicator of how very much they just want it to be over once the voting-machine oracle has spoken. After all, they need to get back to finishing up their campaign-finance reports--those need to be accurate.

Instead of standing back, unemotionally, from the task and treating voting-machine output like we would any that supporting any other big decision, we perceive post-election verification as a continuation of the winners-and-losers drama. Instead of acting like sober grown-ups, we act like spectators at a ball game, condemning anyone who questions the ref. In the past two weeks, I've read a lot of online discussion of the odd results in Kentucky and Ohio. Nearly every discussion gets derailed into a discussion of people's motives for questioning the output or into evidence-free speculation on other reasons for the outcomes. I cannot think of any other circumstance in which people don't demand an answer to the first question, "Are we sure that's correct?" before, or at least while, speculating on other possibilities.

Yesterday, I introduced the topic of verifying voting-machine output to a sharp young democracy activist from Milwaukee. She is already deeply immersed in the fights for redistricting reform, getting the money out of politics, and even proportional representation. She seemed to catch on quickly, but after nodding and asking a few good questions, she asked, "So what makes you think there's a problem?"

She fully understood and accepted the fact that we routinely swear people into office on the basis of unverified computer output--but she didn't perceive that as a 'problem' unless I could present her with evidence that some competitor had been unfairly denied a victory. (I'm polite when I get this response, but one of these days: "I just informed you that no one would know if our elections were being stolen, and you respond by asking whether any elections have been stolen. Let me start again at the beginning...")

Election integrity activists need to point out that verification isn't necessary for the purpose of changing preliminary results; it's necessary to make sure they are, in fact, the results.

We need to speak relentlessly of post-election verification as a routine, basic administrative procedure, rather than as a challenge to this outcome or that. We need to point out the three-legged stool of a) ongoing security, b) pre-operation testing, and c) post-operation verification that every other computer-dependent manager relies upon, and point out that elections administrators are the only managers who pull off and discard that third leg.

A business manager doesn't wait for the owner to contest the bank deposit before he will agree to reconcile the receipts with the cash-register print-out. The city treasurer doesn't need citizens storming his office complaining of inaccurate property tax bills before he makes sure they are being calculated correctly. We don't need to demand a recount from our bank before they audit their books to confirm that all deposits were credited to the correct accounts.

Routine verification of computer output is standard administrative practice, not a continuation of a contentious political campaign.  

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