Reason or rationalization? Arguments against verifying voting-machine output

Reasoning.jpgWhen my physical therapist asks why I didn’t do the prescribed exercises, I could reply, “Because they are uncomfortable, I am clumsy, and I feel like an idiot when I do them.” Those are the real reasons--not admirable, but honest.

But if I replied, “I don’t have room anywhere in my house;” or “Your instructions confused me,” those would be rationalizations—self-serving half-truths or untruths created for the purpose of either concealing my true motivations or deflecting the conversation.

Because there is no good reason for declaring unaudited voting-machine output to be final election results, anyone who defends the practice must argue based on 1) honest but weak reasons or 2) rationalizations.

Rationalization.jpgThe county clerk where I live rationalizes. Last week, a curious newspaper editor asked me to explain the clerk’s reasons for opposing verification, so I provided her with a long, defensive memo the clerk had written for county board supervisors and explained it line by line—850 words of pure rationalization. Verifying voting-machine output is ‘outside the law’ (No, it’s not.) It would require a full recount. (No, it wouldn’t.) Pre-election testing makes post-election checking unnecessary. (No, it doesn’t.)  I almost felt silly for wasting the editor’s time. I wanted to say, “Can I just tell you that these are all just excuses and red herrings, and offer you some facts instead?”

Other county clerks I’ve encountered give honest reasons for not verifying the accuracy of the voting machines’ output. A clerk in a nearby county once gave me a very heartfelt description of his fear of sparking partisan accusations of ‘tampering’ with the election record if he opened the ballot bags after they were sealed on Election Night.  His honesty gave us an opportunity to talk about the sorts of things supportive citizens could do to shield him from such attacks.

Yesterday, I chatted with another elections official. She earned my respect for her integrity, if not her insight, as she struggled for several minutes to articulate her reasons for opposing post-election audits: “Once we start to treat election results as something that can be open to question, where does it stop? We will audit and then someone will say “Yeah, well, the audit was rigged.” Then we’ll need to audit the audit and where does it end?”

The slippery-slope argument is always suspect, but deserves respect when it is someone's genuine concern.  And in part, she is right: A small proportion of sore losers will always find fault with the process, which will always have flaws. But they’re complaining now, so we have nothing to lose with them. And if we reject every improvement that won't please them, we can never move forward.

The vast majority of voters, however, will be more confident in election results if officials make at least one transparent, credible pass at verifying the accuracy of the computer output. Other public officials who audit their computer output don't have an unmanageable  problem with demands that they audit their audits. Finally, the difference between one audit and none at all is likely to make a world of difference to a would-be electronic thief as he considers whether to hack our vote-counting software.

I have a lot of respect for the reasoners, even if we disagree. Their well-motivated effort to articulate what they honestly see as problems and to stay engaged in the conversation is invaluable in moving forward. The rationalizers? I dunno. Constructive conversation with them is impaired if not impossible. After all, that is why people rationalize--to shut down productive conversation. And if they don't engage in problem-solving conversation, we just have to go around them to others. Although I genuinely dislike showing someone up to be foolish or dishonest, I don't yet see any other option.


Dane County, Wisconsin residents: Please visit this county citizen-feedback webpage, and vote for the petition seeking verification of our voting-machine output. (Use a desktop, laptop, or tablet--users say that the site does not yet work well on smartphones.) 

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