How accurate should the vote totals be?

"Every vote counts"...even if every vote won't be counted?

Voters and election officials haven’t made up our minds about how accurate we want election results to be.

When it comes to casting votes, we talk as if every vote counts. But when it comes to counting votes, you often hear that every single vote doesn’t really need to be counted.

Miscounts—even large ones—are dismissed as inconsequential if they don’t change the outcome. For example, after the recount, a Wisconsin State Journal headline read: “Recount found thousands of errors, but no major flaws in state election system.”

The reporter, Matthew DeFour, wrote: “At least 9,039 presidential votes weren’t counted correctly on Election Night, and were added to the official results only because of the recount. Another 2,161 votes were originally counted but later tossed out for reasons including to square vote totals with the number of voters who signed the poll book. The more than 11,000 changes to the original vote total represent a minor 0.38 percent error rate out of the nearly 3 million votes counted.”

‘Just identify the right winner’ could be a functional accuracy standard if our election officials ever checked to make sure they did. But Wisconsin election officials don’t, unless someone forces a recount.

In addition, creating an appearance that vote totals are only approximate undermines the “every vote counts” message that motivates people to go to the polls.

Wisconsin statutes contain a more precise accuracy standard

Wisconsin statutes contain a clear Legislative expectation about how accurate election results should be.

Sensible election observers realize a few votes will always be miscounted. A few voters will mark their votes ambiguously; a few ballots will be processed incorrectly. These small errors are, in fact, inconsequential if they don’t change the outcome, but if they do, we want to catch and correct them.

Knowing this, statutes provide for recounts at the taxpayers’ expense if a race was decided by a margin so small that it might have been affected by random errors. But if the margin is so big that the outcome was almost certainly determined by the will of the voters—even if random error remains undetected and uncorrected—the State has no interest in recounting, and the challenger must pay the full cost up front in cash.

When the Legislature revised the recount law in 2015, election officials and others testified that random errors might account for as much as 0.25% of the total votes, but never more.  The outcome of any election decided by a larger margin, they testified, would not be altered by a recount because random errors would never be that numerous.

So our statutes now contain an expectation that election officials will produce results that are at least 99.75% accurate, that no more than 0.25% of the total votes are miscounted for any reason—machine or human error.

With that recount standard in the law, it is dangerous to tolerate an error rate greater than 0.25%. If we say to our election officials that it’s okay to miscount (for example) “a minor 0.38 percent” of the votes, we’re setting up a situation in which an election could be decided by random error, yet still not be subject to recount.

Therefore, any miscounts larger than 0.25% of the total vote should be considered serious. Error rates larger than that are worth detecting so that election officials can determine their cause and make sure the error rate is reduced to the current statutory limit.

Whatever the standard, we need to check.

Whether election officials and voters agree on the 99.75% standard written into our recount law, or whether they agree that election officials can miscount all the votes they want as long as they don't pick the wrong winner, we still need to check.

Neither standard means anything if our election officials don't check to see whether they are achieving it.

The thing that deters hackers and crooked insiders is knowing that any miscounts they produce will be noticed and corrected.

The thing that prevents accidental miscounts from doing any harm is catching them and correcting them before election results are declared final.

It doesn't work when election officials lean back and say "Oh, we can check our accuracy if we ever see signs of trouble."
First, they will never see the signs of trouble if they never check.
Second, if election officials wait to audit only when they see signs of trouble, they will run into ferocious resistance from the 'winner' of the suspicious results. "Bias!", they will shout. "You can't question the results in MY election, if you never check the accuracy of any other."

We need routinely to check the accuracy of our election results before they are declared final, and we need to start now.


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