Summary: Once again, something we hoped would be an improvement is much less than it appears. Dane County Clerk Scott McDonell has been saying that he now conducts voting machine audits after every election. But what might look like an audit to a casual observer is at best only a spot check. The county's efforts follow neither GAB instructions for voting-machine audits nor national recommendations for election audits.
The inefficiency of the county effort is astounding. The Wisconsin Election Integrity Action team, with only two hours of active vote-counting, completed our audit confirming the countywide April 5 outcomes in both the Supreme Court race and the Democratic primary (because we followed national authorities' recommendations.) In contrast, McDonell's idiosyncratic process kept his auditors counting for 7.5 hours in an effort that, at best, could confirm output from only two machines.
Worse, McDonell's insistence on declaring election results accurate first and checking later means that the process cannot protect Dane County's final election results from undetected miscounts. If such a delayed spot-check was to detect an electronic miscount, it would cause only chaos, unnecessary controversy, and possible legal action.
The following post explains five of the flaws in McDonell's process.Read more
I observed Dane County's post-election canvass of the April 5 election results from start to finish this year--all 19 hours over 4 days.
No surprises: As usual, both the municipal and county canvasses checked and double-checked to make sure the right number of BALLOTS had been counted. However, the Board of Canvass (County Clerk Scott McDonell, Democratic Party representative Gretchen Lowe, and Republican Party representative Joyce Waldrop) certified Dane County's election results at around 3:30 PM on Wednesday, before any one had done anything to verify that the correct number of VOTES had been counted.
The votes of 234,681 Dane County voters (99.6% of the total) were certified based only on unaudited computer output. Vote totals are now no longer subject to change or correction.
The other 859 ballots were late-arriving absentee ballots and approved provisional ballots, which had been publicly hand-counted by the municipalities. The last two days of the county canvass were devoted to making sure the votes from those 849 ballots were added to the correct candidates' totals.
Got that? Half the canvass effort to ensure the accurate counting of only 0.4% of the votes.
Over four days, County Clerk McDonell maintained the minimum transparency required by law. Any observers who were already familiar with the statutes and GAB guidance for county canvasses (that would be me) could follow along reasonably well, but anyone else would have been out of luck in terms of understanding what the canvassers were doing or why. McDonell provided no written procedures or standards--not even to the members of the board. Neither did he explain what they were doing as they went along; allow questions from observers; or provide observers with copies of anything the canvassers were looking at, or make it visible to them in any way such as by projecting it on a screen.
"Just guess" was the unspoken message to the public. Finally, he restricted any public comment to five minutes at the end of the four-day-long meeting.
It got this bizarre: At the end of the four days, I asked if I could ask a question and was told I could make a five-minute statement and that was it. (McDonell claimed that to answer a question for the public would be a violation of open meetings law.)
So the official public comment at the county canvass started with this awkwardness coming out of my mouth: "I noticed an agenda-less canvass meeting on the county calendar for 10 AM on April 20. I assume that is the digital-image audit you've been promising. I hope you will let me know if I am right or wrong in that assumption."
I'm not making this up: McDonell didn't even nod yes or no. And when Waldrop wanted to respond to my comment, he wouldn't allow that, either.
This created something of a Mad-Hatter-Tea-Party feeling to the event, since it was basically just four of us sitting around a table in a conference room in the City-County building, sharing Girl Scout cookies from McDonell's daughters. The canvassers and I would chat whenever McDonell left the room, but when he was present they had to pretend I wasn't there, as McDonell himself did.
I left them with a letter, which I've uploaded here. It's kind of wonky--I wanted to address them as professionals who know and care what words like 'risk,' 'prioritize' and 'verification' mean. I could see that at least Lowe was reading it carefully, and she asked me a few sensible questions after the meeting adjourned. The main points of the letter are:
- they spend most of their time addressing risks that are much more remote than the risk of electronic miscounts, or that address no risk at all--such as reviewing vote totals in uncontested races for which it would be impossible for them to certify the wrong winner; and
- they also spend time on tasks that don't need to be completed before they certify the election results, such as discussing individual municipalities' Election-Day practices for keeping track of the number of voters.
And yet they tell us they have no time to check the accuracy of the computer-generated vote totals--which cover 99.6% of the votes.
My request to them wasn't anything dramatic: I simply urged them to consider risk and timeliness when they decide what to do during the canvass, and told them if they thought about it that way, it would be obvious that verification of the computer output is more important than most of what they are doing now.
As I sat listening to them recite numbers for four days, I visualized the following graphic, which shows:
The steps by which our votes are turning into final election results;
The parts of this process that are verified by the current county canvass procedures; and
The parts of the process that are verified by the type of audit we've been demonstrating in our citizens' audits.
Last night at a friend's house, I had an interesting conversation with a county board supervisor who isn't yet convinced that we need to verify electronically tabulated election results. Give him credit for being willing to talk, but Roger (a pseudonym) is still comfortable with leaving the audit trail unaudited while we hand out certificates of election to whomever the output tapes indicated.
Last night, Roger dug in on an argument I find particularly curious. "Who are you," he asked, "to demand that the voting-machine output be checked for accuracy if the candidates themselves have not asked for a recount?
"Because we voters have standing." I replied. "Our right to accurate election results is not contingent upon whether your opponent was satisfied. And neither is the county clerk's statutory responsibility to certify only accurate results."
Roger didn't process that idea, but simply rephrased his point: "I won my last election," he continued, "By only 50 votes. My opponent conceded without asking for a recount. If he was satisfied with the results, why should anyone else question them?"
Roger isn't the only one from whom I've heard this argument in various forms. It's based on a politician's view of elections. To Roger, the election was a man-to-man contest between two and only two competitors. One of them accumulated the most inanimate points (votes) and won the prize of public office. Voters were like mere spectators at a sporting event, able only to boo or to cheer--but not to question--the referee's calls.
I then challenged Roger with the property-tax-bill analogy: Suppose we had a city treasurer who routinely pushed the "Calculate property tax bills" button on his computer and mailed the bills before checking their accuracy.
Assuming that any city treasurer would ever do this (none would!), I told Roger, "We would not tolerate it for a minute if the city treasurer defended this carelessness by saying, "I'll check accuracy when and if an individual property owner demands that I do."
"We would consider it a problem for the whole community, not just one taxpayer, if we knew it was possible that the system had charged lower tax rates to homes in one part of town than another," I said. "We would not wait for the overcharged owners to suspect the error, or demand that they foot the bill for the audit when they did."
"How is it so evident," I asked, "that city treasurers, but not elections officials, have active ongoing responsibility for the accuracy of their computers' output?"
Roger's a lawyer and was in lawyer mode, so I didn't expect him to concede anything. He didn't. He pointed out that the property owners who thought they'd been overcharged would object, and I agreed. He did not, however, engage on either the point that both the city treasurer and the elections official have responsibility to check the accuracy of their computers' output regardless of whether anyone demands it, or the point that the community as a whole has an interest in both accurate property tax bills and accurate election results.
That particular blind spot--perceiving election results to be more like the private property of the candidates than the shared property of the community--accounts for a significant part of the opposition to routine verification. I notice it whenever people start talking about recounts as any sort of acceptable substitute for routine prudent verification of computer output.
Elections are by far the most powerful and basic means by which we, the People, can exercise our collective right to self-government, and I will not concede to any individual candidate--winner or loser--my standing to demand proof that my community's votes were counted accurately.
* * *
The take-away point of this blog post is the major principle: Elections belong to the people, not to the candidates. However, there is a technicality I also want to explain.
When I got home, I looked up the results of Roger's last election. He remembered correctly that he got 50 more votes than his opponent. That gave him 50.89% of the votes to his opponent's 49.1%, or a victory margin of 1.79%. Current law provides for free recounts only when the margin of victory is less than 0.25% (in that election, 7 votes), so his opponent would have had to pay the full cost of the recount.
This in a county where the voting machines have already demonstrated they are capable of allowing dust bunnies to cast at least 1.3% of the votes.
Prudent, professional elections administration simply does not make verification contingent upon individual candidates' willingness and ability to pay for a full recount and to be labeled a 'sore loser.'
I regularly write to county officials about the need for routine, transparent, timely verification of the output of Dane County's voting machines. I rarely get any response--occasionally a polite but negative RSVP if I invite them to a presentation. I don't really expect more, because the decision is entirely up to County Clerk Scott McDonell. Others--particularly pesky 'outsiders' (you might know them as 'voters')--don't have a say.
But today I got a polite and reasoned reply from Dane County Executive Joe Parisi, a former county clerk himself. He expressed his own "strong interest in assuring the accuracy and integrity of our elections," and commended the Wisconsin Election Action Team's "passion for this issue and for your commitment to ensuring that every vote counts," calling it "a noble and worthwhile cause."
So he shares our goals--that much is reassuring. I also appreciated the absence of the all-too-common reflexive defensiveness I've encountered from other officials.
Parisi was county clerk before risk-limiting audits and digital ballot images entered the national discussion, so it's not surprising he is not well-versed on the current and best thinking about management of electronic elections technology. He seems simply to accept what current County Clerk McDonell tells him about today's options. Parisi sent along to me a 'fact sheet' that McDonell prepared about a year ago, and Parisi's comments indicated that he considered it a useful, informative document.
McDonell has slightly updated the document since he first wrote it, but it remains a classic list of rationalizations given by those who defend the use of unaudited computer output as our final election results.
I've uploaded McDonell's arguments, verbatim, along with a point-by-point explanation of their shortcomings. Here are the highlights:Read more
Just a quick post to share the results from Saturday's Citizens Audit of Dane County's voting-machine output in the February 16 primary for Wisconsin Supreme Court.
I'll expand this blog post later with more detail (post any questions in the comments section if there's something specific you want to know about), but right now I'm in a hurry to get the summary report out and get to work on the more detailed report.
One of the things we are trying to do is to demonstrate what a good, transparent, public post-election audit would look like--and that includes prompt and thorough public reporting of the findings. (Something the Dane County Clerk does not do. He says he routinely performs post-election audits, but if you've even seen him publicly report any findings from those audits, I'm afraid you were hallucinating. Hasn't happened.)
Anyway, here's our report of what we did and what we saw in Saturday's audit, and now I'm back to work writing the more thorough report.
When I see nutty behavior—things like toddlers in beauty pageants, a national system of employer-funded health insurance, or legalizing switchblade knives—I practice empathy for my fellow humans by imagining how I would explain their conduct to space aliens. You see, I don’t want the Martians to get the impression my species is irredeemably stupid, so the exercise forces me to dig deep to figure out any possible rational explanation for the behavior.
To appreciate the irrationality of using unaudited computer output to determine who wins our elections, imagine what would happen if people in your city started questioning the accuracy of their computer-tabulated property tax bills. Here’s what would not happen:
The city treasurer would not say that he has always mailed the bills before checking whether his computer tabulated them correctly, and that no one has ever complained before.
The city treasurer would not point out that no law explicitly requires him to check the accuracy of the property tax bills before he mails them.
If asked to audit his computer’s output, the treasurer would not start chattering about the dangers of ‘tampering’ with his own records.
He would not demand that the suspicious property owner pay the full cost of the audit unless the suspected error was tiny–less than 0.25% (one-quarter of one percent.)
And if some deranged city treasurer ever did respond like that, you can bet the local newspaper would not speculate about why the property owners unexpectedly chose to receive suspicious tax bills, or what sort of tinfoil-hat paranoia made them want verification.
Yet that is precisely what happens when citizens have questions about the accuracy of our computer-tabulated election results.
As a culture, we’re computer-literate. We understand the need to maintain as much security as we can for all computers, including voting machines. We understand the need to test them before putting them into actual use. But voting machines remain the ONLY computers in either business or government that we operate with no routine way of noticing when their output has been affected by errors or by manipulation while the computers were in actual use and not just being tested.
So, how would I explain that to space aliens?
It’s not money: Manual vote-counting to verify the computer output can be done by low-paid temporary staff like poll workers or even by volunteers. Post-election verification would cost only a tiny fraction of our overall elections-administration budget.
It’s not time: Although our statutes unfortunately value speed over accuracy, they still give county officials roughly three weeks following each election to declare results final, and allow them to ask for more time if needed. And verification has been made efficient and economical by sampling methods specifically designed for elections by the American Statistical Association, and by recent technological innovations such as digital ballot images, which can be displayed more quickly than paper ballots can be handled.
So what is it? We can say it’s just habit, but that just kicks the question backwards. Why did such strange habits develop?
The main reasons, I think, are standard human foibles—wishful thinking and its evil twin, denial. We want impartial vote-counting so badly that we imagine it exists where it literally cannot. Just a moment’s thought would make anyone realize that every computer is programmed and maintained by fallible, sometimes dishonest humans. But taking that moment would mean giving up the idea of a magically impartial vote-counting box. Our gut knows that admitting the need for verification in future elections means admitting past elections may already have been stolen without our knowledge. For many it is literally unthinkable that we may already be governed by people chosen by criminals or by computer glitches rather than by the will of the people.
A lesser reason, I think, is the tendency, especially among election officials, to see elections as competitions between individual candidates rather than as the expression of a community’s collective will. Talk not very long to most local elections officials and you’ll pick up a burning desire just to get the thing settled—like your mom felt when she didn’t care which kid was right, she just wanted the fight to stop. Maintaining the illusion of quickly decisive results is more comfortable than making sure everyone understands that Election-Night results are preliminary until verified. I cannot count the times I’ve had election officials express a sense that there cannot possibly be a problem when no individual candidate has challenged the results—as if voters like me have no standing to ask for evidence of accuracy, or as if they themselves have no obligation to ensure accuracy unless challenged.
In summary, it’s a good thing I’m not going to have to defend our management of voting machines to the Haggunenons, because that’s the best I can do. There’s no way around it—using unverified computer output to determine who will govern us is indefensibly irrational.
To get the word out about the necessity for prompt verification and to demonstrate its practicality, the Wisconsin Election Integrity Action Team will be conducting public citizens’ audits of election results in Dane County after every election in 2016.
The next one is scheduled for March 12, at the South Central Federation of Labor Hall, 1602 S. Park St. in Madison. We’ll start the audit at 9 AM and continue until we’ve verified the Dane County outcome of the Supreme Court primary and at least two other contests—maybe around 4 PM. Anyone can drop by at any time to see the process and count votes right along with us. Who knows, maybe soon we can convince the county elections officials to do this themselves, and I won’t have to worry about space aliens thinking we’re stupid.
It's time to start gearing up for the citizens' audits that will verify the electronically tabulated results of the 2016 elections, in Dane County and any other Wisconsin counties where people want to join the effort to improve management of Wisconsin's elections technology.
Almost all large Wisconsin counties now use voting machines that automatically, immediately preserve a digital image of every ballot.
In any of these counties the county clerk or involved citizens could choose to use the images in astoundingly efficient, transparent manual counts to verify the accuracy of the voting-machine output.
The Wisconsin Election Action Team demonstrated the method after the February and April elections in Dane County last year, and will be conducting similar public demonstrations after the 2016 elections.
We have released a report that describes the procedures, benefits and risks of Using Automatically Created Digital Ballot Images to Verify Voting-Machine Output in Wisconsin. (Catchy title, that!) In this report, you will find:
- A technical description of the digital ballot images created by the ES&S DS200 and a picture of one of the images;
- A layperson's description of 'risk-limiting auditing,' the technique that allows audits to count just a sample of the ballots while still achieving statistical certainty that the correct winners were identified (or not);
- A step-by-step description of an efficient, transparent process for conducting a citizens' audit; and
- A frank discussion of the limitations and risks of using digital ballot images for this purpose.
Please pass this along to your friends who live in Dane County and encourage them to mark their calendars for Saturday, March 12, to attend a public, transparent post-election audit that will verify Dane County's results in the February 16 Supreme Count primary and perhaps a few other races. The location wil be announced later--follow Wisconsin Election Integrity on Facebook.
Residents of other Wisconsin counties, please read this report and consider whether you could help to organize a similar citizens' audit in your own county, particularly if you live in one of Wisconsin's larger counties that use optical-scan voting systems. If you can, please contact us at WiscElectionIntegrity@gmail.com, and we can provide you with the necessary software, instructions, and pointers.
Dozens if not hundreds of Volkswagen employees must have known of the recently detected emissions software fraud that continued for six years and affected 11 million cars around the world.
And yet the fraud was not revealed by a whistle-blower; it was discovered by outsiders. How could Volkswagen management have coerced so many otherwise reasonable, ethical people into silent cooperation over so long a time? Or did they deliberately hire only crooks?
I’m writing about the Volkswagen fraud in this blog because it raises two big questions relevant to elections: First, is it plausible that voting machine companies could perpetrate a similar sort of fraud? Second, is it plausible that their customers, local election officials, wouldn’t notice?
Now, I don’t run around claiming fraud I cannot prove. I have a natural-born skeptic’s aversion to making accusations without conclusive evidence. Years working at Wisconsin’s Legislative Audit Bureau—an investigative and oversight agency--only sharpened that instinct. At the same time, my hard-wired respect for hard facts also makes me dubious about election officials’ claims that they can ensure 100% correct results every time without routine verification. No other computer-dependent manager makes such an extraordinary demand on my trust. I am acutely aware that when it comes to electronic elections fraud, the only elections we are sure were not miscounted (arguably) are the very few that were recounted. Considering what is at stake, that is a very serious problem.
Back to the questions. First, with regard to the voting-machine companies, the Volkswagen affair clearly demonstrates the plausibility of systemic fraud by companies that manufacture, sell, or service computerized equipment, whether it’s cars or voting machines. Fraud is particularly feasible when they demand proprietary secrecy for their software, and when they sell their product to consumers who have no particular information technology expertise--like local government election officials.
For example, a voting-machine company could routinely install clandestine wireless communications capability on each of its voting machines, in case the company ever feels the need to fix a bug (or an election) without the knowledge of local election officials. The vendors know that local officials never inspect the equipment in any way that might discover the chip, because they don’t want to appear to be ‘tampering with the machines.’ (See footnote.) And IT experts tell us that is only one of several ways voting-machine company insiders could alter election results if they chose to.
With regard to the second question—the local election officials’ willingness to allow possible fraud to go undetected: That’s readily answered. We know they are willing. They grant vendors proprietary secrecy for their software, so no election official ever inspects the vote-tabulating software loaded into any machine. And yet, knowing they did not and cannot inspect the software, the vast majority of jurisdictions—including all Wisconsin counties—routinely neglect to verify the accuracy of electronically tabulated results. My previous post in this blog described the puzzling refusal of many officials even to learn about their practical options for detecting miscounts.
In a well-researched and well-written article in the most recent Atlantic Magazine, What Was Volkswagen Thinking?, business journalist Jerry Useem provides insight into both the corporations and their customers.
Using examples of actual corporate conduct both good and bad, the article explains how otherwise ethical employees of a company, such as a voting-machine company, could go for years without saying anything about their machines’ hack-ability, and why otherwise responsible election officials could choose to trust the machines’ Election-Day accuracy based on nothing more than a determined will to believe.
People within an organization, Useem explains, fall prey to “a cultural drift in which circumstances classified as not okay are slowly reclassified as okay.” In response to pressures and expectations in their workplace, otherwise competent people come to see careless conduct as admirable flexibility. They begin to tolerate excessive risk-taking as if it was creative experimentation. Withholding damaging information starts to feel like prudent discretion. Actual fraud is mentally redefined to be practical adaptation to circumstances.
The derailment usually starts at the top. Useen notes the obvious: in many cases, management is simply dishonest, as seems to have been the case with Volkswagen, and as many election-integrity activists fear when they point to voting machine companies owned by active partisans.
But management might be honest and just as genuinely self-deluded as their employees. Upper-level management might have made ‘fantastic commitments’ without being aware that the company’s employees could not fulfill them without cheating. From my own experience with contracting and procurement, I also suspect impetus to cheat can arise from customers’ demands.
For example, one Wisconsin county clerk has written he does not allow updates or patches to that county’s voting-machine software. If this is true, it’s easy to see how the vendor would be tempted to install wireless communications capability in that county’s voting machines. And why not? The company needs occasionally to update and patch the software, and the county clerk will never discover the communications chip. It would be the only way the company could keep the machines up to date without upsetting the clerk. And once that chip is there, every employee who knows about it is on nothing stronger than an honor system not to alter the election results, because output isn't routinely verified in Wisconsin.
Once expectations are clear, employees will try to conform their behavior. And that behavior is comfortable only when they also bring their perceptions and beliefs into compliance.
For example, an in-depth study following the Challenger space-shuttle explosion found that engineers had observed O-ring failure--the cause of the disaster--in many previous tests; had reported it; and had repeatedly been pressured to endorse more risk as acceptable. Compliantly, they had rewritten their reports to approve looser and looser standards. Then, just before the fatal flight, freezing temperatures convinced the engineers to issue a “No Launch” recommendation. However:
“The data they faxed to NASA to buttress (their no-launch recommendation) were the same data they had earlier used to argue that the space shuttle was safe to fly. NASA pounced on the inconsistency. (Faced with the) script they themselves had built in the preceding years, (the engineers) buckled. The “no-launch” recommendation was reversed to “launch.”
Useem explains that the engineers and managers “were not merely acting as if nothing was wrong. They believed it, bringing to mind Orwell’s concept of doublethink, the method by which a bureaucracy conceals evil not only from the public but from itself.”
That could explain why so many otherwise responsible election officials seem to shut down when you try to talk to them about examining voting-machine output for accuracy. We look at them and think, “You’ve got so very much invested in the elections—all those security measures, all those pre-election tests--how could you not want to check to make sure everything came out right on Election Day?”
But they look at all their hard work and think, “I promised everyone it would work. My career will be over if it doesn’t work. It’s got to work. I’m sure it worked.” Useem explains what happens next:
Even without stress, people tend to underestimate the probability of future bad events. Put them under emotional stress ... and this tendency gets amplified. People will favor decisions that preempt short-term social discomfort even at the cost of heightened long-term risk.
So how do we help election officials break out of this mindset? How do we increase their fear of a ‘future bad event’ that could cause them ‘short-term social discomfort’?
Oddly enough, it is not the risk of a miscounted election occurring that causes their fear; it is the risk of a miscount being detected. Most computer-dependent managers--not election officials--realistically expect that if they do not catch a computer error, someone else will. For them, routine audits reduce fear. But miscounting voting machines don’t blow up like space shuttles, and candidates cannot take voting machines out for test drives between elections. Therefore, in the absence of post-election verification, election officials have no realistic fear of anyone discovering a miscount. The idea of an audit has the opposite effect on them: their fear goes from nothing to, well, something.
That’s why transparent, high-quality citizens’ audits are critical. Even if they cannot be completed before the identified winners are sworn into office, they will still serve a useful purpose of increasing election officials’ realistic expectation (okay, fear) that any miscounts will be detected—if not by them, by someone else. That will create for them the same discomfort felt by bankers, city treasurers, grocery store owners, and all the other computer-dependent managers who fear embarrassment or worse if they don’t notice the computer error and correct it before someone else does.
Note: I know of no requirement that anyone inspect Wisconsin's voting machines to verify they have no wireless communications capability. Over the years, I’ve asked several Wisconsin election officials if they inspect the machines anyway and have not had any tell me that they do. If anyone reading this has any first-hand knowledge of any local officials’ inspection practices that include checking for wireless communications capability, please email me at WiscElectionIntegrity@gmail.com.
Before I retired, I worked in quality assurance for a program that delivered health care and daily living support in clients’ homes. It was a non-military government program, so the provider agencies never had more than a skeleton staff on a shoestring budget. There was rarely only one right way to do anything. Whether because of or in spite of that, most managers were willing to think and talk about quality improvement.
But there were always a few who could be counted on to insist everything was already as good as they could make it, and would resist even learning about any new ideas.
I’m seeing the more of these folk now that I’m working in volunteer election-integrity work.
Verifying computer output is not a novel idea; no sensible person doubts the need to check accuracy whether the output is our property tax bills or our election results. Wisconsin statutes require clerks to keep an ‘auditable’ paper record of every ballot, not a ‘decorative’ one, so we can safely infer that legislative intent had something to do with checking accuracy.
Elections officials who are willing to acknowledge those facts can converse fairly readily about the practical questions: How many ballots do we have to examine before we can be confident we’ve identified the right winners? How can we do that in the time available? If I innovate, what opposition can I anticipate and who is willing to back me up? No local official in Wisconsin that I know of has yet decided to make any improvement but with some, the conversation continues and focuses more on reasonable problem-solving than on rationalizing denial.
But there are many election officials who, when they catch even a whiff of change wafting in on a gentle breeze, batten down the hatches as if expecting a hurricane.
Late last month, I sent a for-your-information letter to each of the 61 municipal clerks in a county where we’re working on raising awareness of the need for verification and its practical solution. Because many are sensitive to any hint of criticism, the letter made it clear that we were asking for change in only county procedures, not municipal ones. In describing what we would be asking of the county, I chose the most respectful, non-threatening, benign words possible without misleading them about the fact that we are asking for improvement. The letter ended with an offer to visit the municipal clerk, at his or her convenience, to talk more about the issue.
Two weeks later, I found one response in my email inbox. After a few comments that revealed significant naiveté about the inherent limitations of the clerks' IT security measures, the municipal clerk wrote:
I tire of these subtle (and sometimes blatant) indictments of a system where it is obvious that no one has taken the time to confer with the clerks first. Instead, they pattern advice on what is assumed to be true. Also, I get the impression someone is prepared to sell us some proprietary software to “fix” a non-problem.
Well, at least he responded. That put him ahead of all the others.
I shushed the devil on my shoulder that wanted to point out that if the writer had genuinely wanted to confer, he could have accepted my offer to meet rather than complaining that we’d never met. In my actual response, I explained some of the basics of prudent IT security as briefly as I could, taking care to work in reference to having spoken with many clerks.
But I did not bother to reiterate my offer to meet with him, and I don’t expect to hear back. When someone has boarded up all his mental doors and windows, my guess is that the best thing is to let him calm down in silence until he realizes there won’t be a hurricane.
The disheartening thing is that the people who are open to the breezes of change are not those who are in a position to implement improvements.
Voters and poll workers, to start with, are very interested when they learn that election results could be made safe from electronic miscounts. They know how much they have invested in elections, and how tragic it would be to lose it all to a computer glitch, when such a loss could easily be prevented.
State and national officials are interested, too. It's the national authorities' recommendations that we're trying to get local elections officials to heed. And last July, when we gave a public demonstration of an efficient new verification method, attendance at the event included the director of the state Government Accountability Board and his chief elections manager; the director of the state League of Women Voters; and a nationally-renowned, federal-government-advising expert on election technology and computer-science professor from a neighboring state.
From within a 30-mile radius, we had also invited 3 county elections officials, 37 county board supervisors, and 61 municipal clerks. Not one of them showed up. Not one.
Among the fingers-in-my-ears-I-can’t-hear-you responses received from local officials over the past few years:
- Every excuse short of “I’m planning on washing my hair that night.” If an election is coming up within two months, they are too busy preparing to talk. If an election is more than two months away, they will be willing to talk about election administration issues when they are more timely. One municipal clerk begged off attendance at a public meeting by saying she’d be too busy registering voters—at 8:00 PM. (She has a staff of seven.)
- They’re just so busy with everything else all the time, they cannot even read the invitation. One county board supervisor told me not to expect a response from any other county board supervisor because “We get so many emails we don’t read them.”
- It’s not my job: “You don’t need to talk to me because I’m (not on that committee; not in the majority; from a neighborhood too affected by Voter ID…).”
- And, of course, silence.
This cannot go on forever. We will get their attention somehow, and for their sake, I hope it's before the next serious electronic miscount gives us cause to shout “I told you so!”
Our local election officials do the best they can with voting-machine security--really, they do. They might or might not understand the dangers of illicit installation of wireless communications chips or software tampering, but they all know they need to keep those machines safely locked up between elections in town hall storage rooms, village police garages, and various other secure compartments.
I cannot count the times that local elections officials have earnestly reassured me of their diligence about that, and I sincerely believe every word. It seems rude to remind them that no matter how hard they try, they cannot count on having complete control, so I try to be gentle when I tell them that they still need to check the output for accuracy, just in case.
But one Connecticut town clerk got the message loud and clear when she went to retrieve the voting machine for an upcoming election and, to her great dismay, found it festooned with crepe paper and cardboard skeletons. One of the town board members had accommodated a local high school club's request to use the town hall for a Halloween haunted house evening and had borrowed the janitor's key ring for the event. The dusty, dark storage room made a perfect place for the skeletons.
That Connecticut elections clerk retired to Wisconsin, and I ran into her at a party tonight. Her story was the most humorous I've heard, but it's unusual only in its colorful details. A Wisconsin county clerk once told me of returning from vacation to find the door to the room where the county election-management computer room hanging wide open. The county executive told her the cleaning crew had decided to take her vacation as an opportunity to clean that room. He apologized that they'd neglected to close the door when they left, but neither he nor the county clerk had realized the cleaning crew's master key worked on that door, too.
Towns, villages, and cities are run by normally competent and well-meaning people who generally do the very best we can expect of them. But management tasks are frequently handled by part-time employees or even volunteers, and executive oversight is provided by local elected officials who often have even less training and experience.
We cannot imagine we can protect our voting machines from tampering simply by demanding local elections officials maintain fool-proof security programs. It's just not within their power.
Transparent, rigorous post-election verification of voting machine output remains the only way local elections clerks, candidates, and voters can be sure that the machines performed accurately on Election Day--or discover if they did not in time to correct the output.