Observing pre-election voting machine tests

Of all the opportunities Wisconsin voters have to observe election processes, the pre-election voting machine tests are probably the most informative, fun, and relaxed. It's the one election process for which the explicit purpose, spelled out in state law, is to demonstrate something for the public, so the vast majority of municipal clerks welcome observers. The tests are informative, and officials are unlikely to be stressed out by other pressures, as they often are on Election Day.

This page includes instructions for observers and the complete text of the state statute governing these tests, and the complete text of WEC's written instructions for municipal clerks. This is all you need to know to observe.

Purpose of the Pre-election Voting Machine Test

Statutes are clear about the purpose of the pre-election voting-machine test: to demonstrate to the public that "the voting machine will correctly count the votes cast for all offices and on all measures."

Pre-election testing, if done correctly, can detect machine malfunctions and inadvertent programming errors in time to fix them before Election Day. However, it cannot detect deliberate hacking because skillful programmers would know not to allow their hacks to manipulate totals before Election Day.

In addition, clerks use pre-election voting-machine tests to check other things. For example, they often check that the machine can read ballot inserted in any orientation; that the computer's clock and calendar are set correctly; that the paper tape is printing legibly; and that new poll workers know how to operate the machines.

What happens at a pre-election voting machine test?

The Wisconsin Elections Commission has a seven-minute video showing a voting-machine test. The basic steps are:

  1. Before the test, the municipal clerk prepares a “test deck”, a set of marked ballots or a series of votes to be entered into the touch-screen machine, with a predetermined correct result.
  2. The voting machine will be set up just as it will be on Election Day and turned on. The clerk will run a ‘zero tape’ to make sure that no votes are stored in the machine’s memory.
  3. Someone then feeds the ballots through the optical scanner, or two people will enter them into the touch-screen machine. (Two people are needed to test the votes on the touch-screen to make sure the votes are cast as planned.) 
  4. The machine will be shut down using the same procedure that will be used at poll closing on Election Day. The results will be printed out and compared to the expected results. If the machine produces different results than the clerk expected, the clerk must determine what caused the discrepancy and correct it.
  5. The voting machine will be returned to locked, secure storage to minimize risk that anyone will tamper with it between the test and the election.

Purposes of observing

Without observers, the clerk is unable to demonstrate an accurate count to the public, as the law requires, because the public is not there. The mere presence of observers—even if they say nothing—helps to ensure the tests are performed thoroughly and in accordance with instructions.

If the machine does not produce vote totals that match the pre-determined results, the presence of citizen observers helps to ensure that the problems are adequately addressed.

In addition, conscientious clerks welcome public observers because they know that citizen observers can help them build a good reputation and confidence in well-run elections.

Finally, because voting machine tests are often relatively relaxed, unhurried occasions, they provide a good opportunity for citizens to get to know the municipality’s election equipment and procedures better, and to allow the municipal clerk and interested citizens to get to know each other and develop mutual respect for their shared interest in accurate election results.  

What should observers do and what should they watch for?

1.   Call your municipal clerk about two weeks before the election to ask when and where the voting-machine test(s) will take place.  By law, the tests cannot take place any earlier than 10 days before the election. Tell the clerk you are interested in observing the test, and say that you understand they will be following the instructions in the Election Administration Manual, and ask if he or she will be following any other instructions, such as from the county clerk or the machine vendor, so that you will know what to expect.

Specifically mentioning the official instructions reassures the clerk that you have realistic expectations. It will also give the clerk an opportunity to refresh his or her memory about those instructions before the test.

2.   Bring a copy of the relevant sections of the statute and the instructions from the Election Administration Manual (both are below; you can just print this page) so that you can refer to them as the test proceeds.  Read them ahead of time; they are not difficult.

3.   Follow these general instructions for observers.

4.   Arrive early or on time so that you can observe the machines being set up, if they were not set up ahead of time. This may not go quickly and smoothly if the testers are still learning how to set the machines up.  Their set-up efforts, however, should end with a voting machine that is operating correctly and has printed out a tape showing that no votes are stored in the computer’s memory.

5.   Ask to see the test deck and the predetermined results, and ask the clerk whether the test deck conforms with the  instructions from the Election Administration Manual--that is, does every candidate in every race get at least one vote; is there a blank ballot and an overvoted ballot for each race, and are there write-in votes?

An issue you should know about: Ties in the test deck -- WEC's video, but not the written instructions, appropriately warn the clerk that the test deck should contain a different number of votes for each candidate (no ties). This is essential if the test is going to be able to detect the most common set-up error: 'flipping' the votes--that is, accidentally instructing the machine to count Jones' votes for Smith, and Smith's votes for Jones. In the observing experiences reported by volunteers, every clerk but one has understood the necessity of this once it was pointed out to them. So if your clerk has created a test deck giving candidates in any contest the same number of votes as another candidate, ask him or her to create one more ballot that breaks all the ties.

An issue you should know about: Size of the test deck  --  No Wisconsin instructions specify how large the test deck should be, and many clerks do not understand that some errors cannot be detected in very small tests. Nearly every clerk uses a test desk too small to satisfy 'logic and accuracy' testing standards used outside elections. If your clerk uses a very small test deck (10 or less is very common), suggest that he or she look into the wisdom and feasibility of running a larger test in subsequent elections. Encourage the clerk at least to create a test deck that has at least enough ballots to include all the permutations required in the WEC instructions (below).

6.  Ask questions throughout the process, as long as your questions don’t interfere with the purpose of the test or slow the test down more than the officials are willing to accommodate your questions.

For tests of touch-screen machines: Although it is not required by the prescribed instructions, ask the clerk if he or she will have the testers deliberately cast at least one vote for the wrong candidate and correct the error only after the paper trail has been printed. This required feature has been known to malfunction, and a clerk would be wise to test it before Election Day.

7.   When the test ballots have all been cast and the results printed out, the clerk will compare the results tabulated by the machine to the predetermined results he or she prepared ahead of time. The clerk should allow you to see, if not handle, the documents so that you, as an independent observer, can confirm that the results are the same.

For tests of touch-screen machines: Although it is not required by the prescribed instructions, ask the clerk if he or she will verify that the voter-verifiable paper trail (VVPAT) printed correctly. Elections have been threatened or ruined by malfunctioning VVPAT mechanisms, election officials inserting the paper the wrong way, and other problems. It is important that these be verified as functional; if they are not working correctly, a verifiable record of the votes may not be created on Election Day.

An issue you should know about: Confirm number of VOTES, not just ballots. --  When the Wisconsin Election Integrity group conducted organized observations of pre-election voting machine tests several years ago, we discovered that about half of the municipal clerks didn't realize they were supposed to be checking to see that the machines counted the votes correctly. They thought they were done when they confirmed that it counted ballots correctly! Don't think too unkindly of them--if  you read through the WEC instructions, you'll see that they talk about "an errorless count" without ever being explicit as to an errorless count of what. But one of the most helpful things an observer might be able to do is make sure the clerk notices and follows that part of the statute--to check that the machine counted the votes correctly.

8.  If the machine-tabulated results don’t agree with the predetermined results, the clerk needs to figure out what the problem is. The clerk may just guess the machine is correct and his or her predetermined results were in error. For example, the clerk might decide he or she was mistaken about the color of ink the machine is able to read, or how overvotes or undervotes were to be processed. If this is the case, try to discourage the clerk from merely assuming the discrepancy was caused by his or her error without testing with more ballots.

An issue you should know about: There are no instructions about miscounts. --  Unless your county clerk has provided your municipal clerk with additional instructions, he or she will have no instructions to follow if the two counts cannot be reconciled. Nevertheless, if this happens, expect the municipal clerk promptly to notify the county clerk of the problem. Observers should follow up with both county and municipal clerk to make sure that the machines are used on Election Day have produced an errorless count, in this municipality and elsewhere in the county, as required by statute.

What to do if you see problems

If you see any practices that don’t match the instructions, ask the clerk to explain. There may be some necessary, harmless variations the clerk is doing for a sensible reason. As long as the main purpose of the test is fulfilled—a public demonstration of an errorless count of the votes—there’s no need for observers to be sticklers.

If the clerk cannot give you a good explanation for the variation, and you think the variation prevents the test from demonstrating an errorless count, refer the clerk to the precise requirement or instruction that you believe is not being followed. Explain the reason for your concern.

For example, in one observed test where the machine-tabulated results did not match the predetermined results, the clerk called an end to the test, saying that she would return to her office and figure out the problem.  If this happens, you could say something like, "Determining whether the machine has produced an errorless count is purpose of the test, and statutes say the test needs to be open to the public. If you return to your office to figure out and fix the problem, how and when will you perform the errorless count in a public test?”

Try to work something out with the clerk that meets both his or her needs and your own need to observe an errorless count, always keeping your demands centered on the statutory requirements and the Election Administration Manual instructions.

If you cannot work out a mutually satisfactory resolution with the municipal clerk, encourage him or her to contact the county clerk about the matter, and say you will do the same.  Write down the relevant details of the problem promptly, clearly, factually, and completely. Then call or email the county clerk to report the problem and ask to be kept informed as the problem is resolved.

If the problem is not resolved by noon on the Friday before the election, contact the Wisconsin Elections Commission, before the close of business that day if at all possible, to give WEC staff at least one working day before Election Day to respond.

The Wisconsin Elections Commission's office hours are M-F, 7:45 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

WEC phones: (608) 266-8005  --  toll-free toll-free 1-866-VOTE-WIS  -- Fax (608) 267-0500.

WEC email:  elections@wi.gov

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Wisconsin State Statute pertaining to voting-machine tests

(Paragraph breaks added.)

5.84 Testing of equipment; requirements for programs and ballots.

(1) Where any municipality employs an electronic voting system which utilizes automatic tabulating equipment, either at the polling place or at a central counting location, the municipal clerk shall, on any day not more than 10 days prior to the election day on which the equipment is to be utilized, have the equipment tested to ascertain that it will correctly count the votes cast for all offices and on all measures.

Public notice of the time and place of the test shall be given by the clerk at least 48 hours prior to the test by publication of a class 1 notice under ch. 985 in one or more newspapers published within the municipality if a newspaper is published therein, otherwise in a newspaper of general circulation therein.

The test shall be open to the public.

The test shall be conducted by processing a preaudited group of ballots so marked as to record a predetermined number of valid votes for each candidate and on each referendum.

The test shall include for each office one or more ballots which have votes in excess of the number allowed by law and, for a partisan primary election, one or more ballots which have votes cast for candidates of more than one recognized political party, in order to test the ability of the automatic tabulating equipment to reject such votes.

If any error is detected, the municipal clerk shall ascertain the cause and correct the error.

The clerk shall make an errorless count before the automatic tabulating equipment is approved by the clerk for use in the election.

(2) Before beginning the ballot count at each polling place or at the central counting location, the election officials shall witness a test of the automatic tabulating equipment by engaging the printing mechanism and securing a printed result showing a zero count for every candidate and referendum. After the completion of the count, the ballots and programs used shall be sealed and retained under the custody of the municipal clerk in a secure location.

History: 1979 c. 311; 2001 a. 16; 2005 a. 92.

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Excerpt from Election Administration Manual

Pre-Election Electronic Voting Equipment Testing

(Oct. 2016 version, pages 147-150)  Wisconsin statutes require that all municipalities test the software of electronic voting equipment for correctness and accuracy.  The purpose of testing electronic voting equipment is to ensure that the equipment will correctly tabulate votes for all offices and referenda.

Public Notice

The testing of electronic voting equipment, either DRE or optical scan equipment, shall be open to the public.

 1.The test may not be conducted earlier than ten days before Election Day.

 2. Public notice of the time and location of the testing shall be given by the clerk at least 48 hours before.


In order to conduct a pre-election test for accuracy, the municipal clerk must create a test deck, which is a plan detailing a predetermined number of valid votes for each candidate and on each referendum.  The test deck should reflect all of the required testing components described in this section.

1. Optical Scan Equipment

a. Ballots should be marked to reflect a pre-determined number of valid votes for each candidate and referendum.

b. Pre-marked ballots shall be run through the optical scan voting unit.

c. The actual tabulation of the pre-marked ballots shall then be compared to the pre-determined number to verify the voting equipment is tabulating properly.

2. Direct Recording Electronic (DRE) Equipment

a. Votes shall be cast on the DRE unit in a manner reflecting a pre-determined number of valid votes for each candidate and referendum.

b. The printout of the tabulation of the votes cast shall then be compared to the pre-determined number to verify the voting equipment is tabulating properly.

c. At least two individuals should participate in the DRE test to ensure votes selected on the test deck are entered correctly in the voting system.

3. Errorless Count Requirement (Note: When you observe, make sure the clerk understands this means an errorless count of VOTES, not just BALLOTS. Some don't know that!)

a. If an error is detected during the testing, the municipal clerk shall determine the cause and correct the error.

b. The clerk must make an errorless count before the electronic tabulating equipment is approved by the clerk for use in the election.

Note:  The WEC recommends that municipalities formulate a test deck that is unique to the municipality, and refrain from using test decks provided by the manufacturer/programmer.  This is to ensure any errors not discovered by the programmer will be uncovered by the clerk during the test.

Testing Components Requirement

1. Each candidate for every office, for every party, needs to be tested.

2. Overvotes need to be tested for every office and ballot measure on the ballot.

a. Overvotes are votes in excess of the number allowed by law.

b. Overvotes shall be rejected by the voting equipment.

3. Blank Ballots

a. Blank ballots are ballots that have no votes recorded.

b. A blank ballot shall be tested to ensure that they are rejected by the voting equipment and notify the elector that no votes have been recorded.

4. Write-in votes

a. On DRE equipment, the write-in function for each office shall be tested to ascertain that it is functioning properly.

b. On optical scan voting equipment, it shall be tested to determine that ballots containing write-in votes for each office are properly separated into the write-in bin.

5. Partisan Primary

The clerk shall test for one or more ballots that have votes cast for a candidate of more than one recognized party are rejected.

6. General Election

Straight party voting is only allowed for military and overseas voters on write-in absentee ballots. Note:  Straight party ballots may also be remade by election inspectors on Election Day in order to be tabulated by voting equipment or may be counted by hand.

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 These observers' instructions can be improved by your feedback. Please comment below or email your suggestions to us at wisconsingrassroots@gmail.com. We particularly invite suggestions from observers who have used these instruction at a voting machine test, and from election officials.

Let us know how your experience went, and what you saw, either good or bad, by emailing us at WiscElectionIntegrity@gmail.com.

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