How votes are counted in Wisconsin

Pre-election preparation and security

In most of Wisconsin and all of Racine County, votes are read and tabulated by computer. Wisconsin uses only voting machines that have been approved by the federal government, based on reports from private testing laboratories. New and redesigned systems must also be reviewed and approved by the Wisconsin Election Commission.  All voting machines used in Wisconsin must use or retain a paper record of each ballot.

Several different commercial systems are used. In November 2016, Racine County used two: The Optech Eagle, an opscan machine that reads paper ballots marked by voters, and the AVC Edge, for voters who need an accessible system. Although an Edge unit is in each of Racine County’s polling places, the large majority of voters (98.2%) chose to use a paper ballot, according to data submitted by Racine County municipalities to the Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC).

Responsibility for the security for the machines and their software changes several times during each election cycle. When the machines or software are manufactured, serviced, or updated, private companies control the security. Between elections, municipal clerks are responsible for the security of the voting machines themselves, and typically county clerks responsible for the security of the software.  Soon before each election, the software is provided to the municipal clerk, and on Election Day, poll workers in each polling place must ensure security.

Before every election, each voting machine must be set up to process the unique ballot for that election, typically by the county clerk or a vendor. During the week before the election, the municipal clerks test each machine publicly to demonstrate that they are counting accurately.

Election Night vote-counting

On Election Night, votes are tabulated by the computer in each voting machine. After the polls close, poll workers, known as election inspectors, unlock the machines and press a “Print Totals” button. The machine then prints a poll tape showing the machine’s calculated totals for each race. Totals are reported for each candidate and for the number of ‘undervotes,’ or ballots from which the machine detected no vote in that race.

Elections inspectors also look through all the ballots to find the write-in votes, and hand-tabulate the votes for registered write-in candidates. These candidates are not listed on the ballot, but did file paperwork with the WEC indicating their candidacy. Election inspectors in Wisconsin are not required to count any other write-in votes, either individually (e.g. 3 for Bernie Sanders, 4 for Aaron Rodgers, etc.) or in the aggregate (e.g., 7 unregistered write-in votes). However, the reporting software and forms allow local election officials to report the total number of protest write-in votes in a category called ‘scattering.’ This reporting is optional, and Racine County did not report these votes. Counties that did count and report ‘scattering’ votes reported that about 1 in every 100 ballots (0.955%) contained a ‘scattering’ vote for president.

The lead election inspector in each polling place completes an ‘inspector’s report,’ on which he or she records basic information about the conduct and results of the election in that polling place, and in particular notes any oddities or irregular occurrences.

Review and certification of election results

Municipal reviews of the election records and results, called canvasses, must be completed within the week following each election. Led by the municipal clerks, these efforts review the inspectors’ reports to note any unresolved issues, resolve any provisional ballots, review the election records to ensure they are complete and in order, and certify (that is, approve as ‘complete and true’) any municipal races on the ballot. (In November 2016, there were none.)

Municipal clerks then submit the election records to the county board of canvassers. The county board of canvassers consists of representatives of the Democratic and Republican parties and the county clerk. County clerks are elected constitutional officers with substantial independent authority.

Statutes describe no specific instructions or procedures for the canvass methods, but do impose timelines. For the most part, the county canvass must be completed within three weeks of Election Day.  It is during this period that discrepancies could be noticed, if canvassers looked for them. County canvasses have the authority to have municipalities verify returns that don't make sense. The county canvassers review the returns submitted by the municipalities and if satisfied of their accuracy after review, certify the election results for federal, state, and county offices by signing a statement attesting that the results are 'correct and true.'

Certification makes election results final, and no further review is done unless someone successfully petitions for a recount within a short time after certification. Results are then submitted to the WEC, which has no statutory authority to conduct any further review of accuracy, beyond making sure all jurisdictions submitted results.

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