In brief: Our election officials tell us that every single valid vote and not one single invalid vote should be counted. But if you watch closely, you’ll notice that election officials tend to tolerate any size or type of miscount unless it seems to affect the outcome.
Well, which is it? Do we want 100% accuracy, or do we want only approximate election results that probably identify the right winner? Until we face the need for clear and consistent standards, we cannot hold our election officials to any.
(Updated with additional information from a June 2017 report from WEC staff--see end of blog post.)
May 30, 2017 -- During the 15 years I supervised investigations for Wisconsin’s legislative oversight agency, I learned the value of several specific thinking skills. One was to be clear about expectations.
Auditors call them ‘standards’. Investigations start when someone reports that something is not as it should be. A good investigator’s first step is to figure out: What is it that should be? What would things look like if everything was working right?
If, for example, the complaint is “This permitting process takes too long”, we need to know how long people expect it to take.
This habit of noticing standards—or their absence--spilled over into the rest of my life. It's useful. You probably know that you’re less likely to be swayed by a salesperson if you’ve already decided how much you want to spend before you set foot in the store.
And standards keep us heading in the right direction. As the Cheshire Cat told Alice, which way you need to go from here depends a good deal on where you want to get to.
The way things are now, however, paying close attention to the standards we set for our elections can make a person dizzy.
Sometimes we apply a strict standard: Not a single wrong vote. Not one.
According to Chris Ott, Executive Director of the Wisconsin ACLU, "We know precisely the number of eligible voters that is too many to keep away from the polls: even one."
He was talking about Voter ID, and how it keeps some eligible voters from the polls.
Those who fuss about ineligible voters proclaim the same single-vote standard. In April 2015, I observed a Wisconsin county board of canvass as they decided what to do about a ballot cast by a voter who lacked ID. She had been given a provisional ballot. Those ballots are supposed to be sealed in an envelope and counted only after the voter returns with identification. However, the voter naively fed it into the voting machine right away, and it was counted.
There were 234,680 other ballots in that election. But the officials decided that if the voter did not provide identification by the deadline, they were going to go after that one rogue ballot. They were going to unseal the ballot bags, find it, and discard it. They were not willing to tolerate even one wrong vote.
And on those rare occasions when officials find evidence of voter fraud, they take action. In 2014, a Wisconsin audit reviewed voting records in statewide elections from February 2010 through April 2014 and found that, across four years and 16 elections, a total of 33 felons might have cast illegitimate votes. The legislature directed the state elections agency to refer the cases to district attorneys for possible prosecution.
This single-vote standard is also applied to voting machines. Federal standards require no more than one miscounted vote in every 500,000 from perfectly marked ballots, when counted in laboratory tests.
In real life situations, modern paper-ballot systems have achieved 99.99% accuracy even when the ballots contain some poorly marked votes. But in 2012, one Texas county thought “hand-marked paper ballots …open the door to ambiguous voter intent.” The possibility of one miscounted vote in 10,000 was too much for them, so they threw away their paper ballots and bought touchscreen voting machines instead.
Other times we apply a lax standard: A few thousand wrong or miscounted votes isn't anything to worry about.
In the 2016 recount of Wisconsin’s presidential election, one county’s board of canvass discovered more than five dozen valid absentee ballots had been left uncounted on Election Day. And the errors didn’t stop there. That county's officials determined they and their voting machines had originally miscounted 1,475 votes—either not counted them when they should have, counted when they should not have, or counted them for the wrong candidate. Then, when reporting the recount results, they accidentally recorded 21 votes in the wrong candidate’s column. They did not correct that error when informed of it. (1)
Commenting after the recount, the county clerk said he was “extremely proud.” He made it clear he thought the recount had been unnecessary. Checking accuracy when the race is not close, he wrote, is “really quite an insult to suggest that we don’t know how to do our jobs.”
News media coverage of the recount reflected the same relaxed standard. In Marinette County, the recount revealed that one city’s voting machines had failed to detect votes on 291, or 24%, of the ballots. This miscount was obvious to both municipal and county officials on Election Night, but they considered it tolerable and certified results without correcting the error. Only the recount forced correction. No reporters considered the incident worthy of investigation or reporting, and it received no coverage.
The Wisconsin State Journal’s headline made its standard clear: “Recount found thousands of errors, but no major flaws.”
So which accuracy standard should we use—exact or approximate?
Readers familiar with my work may be surprised that I don’t think we should pursue 100% accuracy. Until we can find someone other than humans to run our elections, perfection is not within our grasp. Reaching for it throws us off balance. For example, when the Texas county threw away voter-marked paper ballots because of a tiny miscount rate, it threw away its ability to detect miscounts of any size because it no longer had an auditable record.
The whole voter ID mess is the worst illustration of what happens when we seek perfection. Even without ID requirements, our registration system prevents all but insignificant voter fraud. And yet states with voter ID are spending millions to go after the remaining, minuscule problem. They are inconveniencing every honest citizen who casts a vote, and preventing thousands from voting at all. All in the vain pursuit of perfection.
So I’m not on board with an “every single vote” standard of accuracy. But when our election officials and media yawn at thousands of miscounted votes, I’m not willing to say "Mistakes are okay," either.
A complete lack of standards leaves the door open for wild inconsistency. I told you about one county where officials were willing to track down and discard even one illegitimate vote out of more than 234,000. And I told you about a county where standards were so lax that when they discovered 1,475 miscounting errors, the county clerk said he was insulted that anyone would request verification. Both stories are from the same county, the same clerk, the same board of canvass—Dane County, Wisconsin.
That’s what happens without standards. Officials can pick and choose their own targets, grabbing one before Election Day and a different one after. They can apply one standard to voters' errors and a different one to their own. Without standards, voters, candidates, and reporters—and conscientious officials—have no solid ground to stand on when they try to assess the quality of the elections.
If we had a clear standard—say, 99% confidence that the election results identified the correct winner—we could make better judgments about where to spend our effort and election resources. We could set a threshold for voter fraud, and establish that it is not worth millions of dollars to prevent a few people from voting twice. We could tell our election officials that no, it's not okay to declare election results final until after you've corrected the voting-machine output that missed one in every four votes.
And by the way, should we count write-in votes?
It’s not just a question of picking a maximum acceptable error rate. Wisconsin hasn’t yet settled the question of how—or even whether—to count write-in votes.
For those who believe elections need to do no more than identify winners, write-in votes are not worth counting. Some election officials appear to be in this group. In last November’s presidential election, Wisconsin officials counted only 84.3 percent of the votes for registered write-in candidate Evan McMullin until the recount forced a do-over. That is, more than one in seven voters’ expressed preference for McMullin was simply ignored when officials first tabulated and certified the election results.
Bernie Sanders’ voters fared even worse. Wisconsin law currently does not require officials to count votes for unregistered write-in candidates. The state elections agency allows counties, at their option, to report the total number of such votes in a miscellaneous category called ‘scattering.’ But not all counties do. So 24 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties did not report the number of miscellaneous write-in votes in the original results, the recount, or both. In these counties, write-ins for unregistered write-in candidates were literally—and legally—treated as if the ballots were blank. No one has any idea how many voters were so frustrated with the nominees that they were willing to go to the polls to express their feelings.
For those who believe election results need to reflect the voice of the people, that’s not okay. Some voters may be content to have the voice of the people constrained to saying only one of two things: either “I like the Democratic candidate” or “I like the Republican candidate.” But others want an opportunity to say that they want someone else, and to have that voice heard.
If and when we want to improve the accuracy of our elections—or even talk about it productively—we’re going to have to face and resolve these questions.
(1) The author detected the error—21 votes added to Cherunda Fox’s total for the Village of Waunakee—while reviewing the recount findings. An email exchange with the Village Clerk in March 2017 confirmed that the votes should have been added to Evan McMullin’s total. A check of official results on the state's website on May 28, 2017 confirmed that the error had not been corrected—and likely will not be, because the recount results have been certified final and are no longer subject to correction.
UPDATE, June 20, 2017
At today's meeting of the Wisconsin Election Commission, staff presented a report on the 47 voting-machine audits--something different than recounts--that were performed in accordance with s.7.08(6), Wis. Stats. following the November election. My detailed description of how these audits work is here.
Instructions for the audit (page 6 of the memo) seem to indicate the audit standard is "not one vote must be miscounted." However, the memo is not specific about the number of votes in any of the audits, which gives us a sign that the officials performing the audits and reporting the results were applying a less precise standard.
One of the villages randomly selected for audit, the Village of Hortonville in Outagamie County, could not reconcile the results of its audit hand-count with the Election-Night results they reported and certified. (Outagamie County uses the Optech Eagle, and did its recount by machine, so the electronic miscounts must have merely been replicated in the recount, not caught.)
However, the report does make it clear that after separate attempts by the municipality, county, and state to reconcile the different vote totals, "This exercise did not produce a result that allowed staff to understand how the Optech Eagle treated these ballots with confidence."
Now, back to the point of this blog post: What is the implicit standard that our election officials applied in this case? 'Not one vote', or 'miscounts are okay'? A key statement is on page 11 of the memo:
"The analysis of the performance of the Optech Eagle identified a significant limitation of the equipment, but the Optech Eagle performed as expected during the 2016 Presidential Election."
Read that again to make sure that phrase sinks in: "A significant limitation...as expected." That's the standard for accuracy that is applied by our election officials to Wisconsin's voting-machines.
You Are The Boss - Manage Your Employees
First of all, find your legislators! Check out this link-click on the word WISCONSIN and you will be taken to the state legislature website to locate your state senator and representative. Be prepared with your ZIP+4 code because this page also has a link to the U.S. House of Representatives page to locate your US Representative!
Start with My Vote Wisconsin - your guide to the local election scene, presented by the Government Accountability Board (GAB).
For real political mainliners, try the GAB website itself! It is full of lots of good stuff.
If you want to keep track of what your federal legislators are doing, there is always GovTrack.us who lets us know how our selected legislators (ours or those we just want to keep an eye on) are voting.
If you come across local links of interest, please let us know. Most county board meetings are available online (usually delayed but sometimes live).
Comments are always welcome as are links to other sites.
Just a reminder - YOU are the BIGGEST part of the solution!
Find out WHERE you can vote (or REGISTER) at this link: https://myvote.wi.gov/Address/AddressSearchScreen.aspx!
People have lots of ideas about how to ensure accurate election results, including throwing away the voting machines or piling on more pre-election security measures. Some of these ideas will help.
But without waiting for years of debate and sluggish legislative action, citizens can do five things right now under current law to make election miscounts less likely or to make sure mistakes and miscounts get caught in time to be corrected.
- Let your local election officials know that you want voter-marked paper ballots.
- Observe voting-machine tests before each election.
- Observe poll-closing activities at your precinct.
- Observe municipal and county canvass meetings
- Encourage your local officials to perform post-election voting machine audits and observe them.
(Detailed instructions for the last four activities are here.)
1. Let your local election officials know that you want voter-marked paper ballots.
Two basic kinds of voting machines are used in Wisconsin: voting machines that count votes directly from a touchscreen, where the voter never touches a ballot (DREs); and optical scanners, which count votes by reading a hard-copy paper ballot that voters insert into the machine.
Of those two systems, voter-marked paper ballots provide a much more secure and reliable record of your vote. Even people with disabilities can mark their own paper ballots by using an electronic ballot-marking device, which is available in every polling place. (These machines have touchscreens, but they do not count any votes.)
Both types of voting machines can be hacked in much the same ways, and both can malfuntion. But DREs are less secure because the only paper record of anyone's vote is created by the machine, not by the voter. It's good that Wisconsin's touch-screen machines print a “voter-verifiable paper trail” that any voter can look at to make sure his or her vote was printed correctly--some states' machines don't. However, studies have shown that only a fraction of voters ever look at their printed paper ballot before they leave the polling place, and only a fraction who notice errors report them. The 2016 recount found many polling places in which no usable paper trail printed at all, and no one noticed on Election Day in time to make sure a paper record was created for every voter.
As a result, hackers know that even if they program the DRE computer to switch a portion of their opponents' votes, so few voters will say anything to the poll workers that the switches will likely be assumed to be voter error. Mechanical problems can also prevent the trail from printing properly, rendering the election results unauditable.
County clerks and municipal clerks choose what type of voting system your polling place will use. Regardless of which system your municipality now uses, contact your county and municipal clerks at any time to let them know you prefer voting systems that allow voters to mark their own ballots--that is, systems that use paper ballots. Voting machines wear out, so whichever type of system you are using now could be replaced by the other kind. If voters do not make their preferences known, county and municipal clerks will be influenced only by the voting-machine vendors. Talk to your friends and family about the importance of retaining a voter-marked paper record of every ballot, and have them contact local election officials, too.
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2. Observe voting-machine tests before each election.
Every voting machine needs to be set up specifically for the unique set of races and candidates running in each election. Within 10 days before each election, your municipal clerk tests each voting machine to verify it is set up correctly. While these tests cannot predict or prevent Election-Day malfunction, they are indispensable for detecting mistakes or mis-calibrations in the way the machine was set up.
Citizen observation of the voting-machine tests provides clerks with witnesses to the quality and completeness of their testing; helps to make sure the tests are in fact done; and helps to make sure any problems are noted and corrected before Election Day. Procedures for these tests are available online in the Election Administration Manual.
Instructions for observing these tests are here.
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3. Observe poll-closing activities at your precinct.
Most poll-watchers depart when the polls close, or stay only to see the results printed out, leaving poll workers without citizen observation for such critical tasks as reconciling the number of ballots with the number of voters; processing write-in votes; securing the unmarked ballots; sealing ballot bags; and more. This is the most complicated of the processes open to citizen observers, but it’s not rocket science. Read through the poll-closing instructions in the Election Day Manual; sign in before polls close with your precinct’s chief inspector, follow his or her directions, and you’ll do fine.
Even if you do not know proper poll-closing techniques as well as the poll workers performing those activities, the presence of citizen observers helps to reduce the likelihood of both fraud and error. We are not accusing election officials of anything worse than being normal humans when we point out that observers make carelessness less likely, makes problems more likely to be noticed, and makes noticed problems less likely to be swept under the rug.
Most clerks welcome citizen observers because the observers' presence protects honest, competent clerks from suspicion and can provide independent verification of the election’s integrity.
Instructions for observing poll-closing activities are here.
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4. Observe municipal and county canvass meetings
Within a few days after each election, small “Boards of Canvass” meet in each jurisdiction to review the results from all the precincts; review the records from Election Day; resolve any loose ends such as late-arriving but valid absentee votes and any challenged or provisional votes; check the totals when all the precincts’ results are added together, and make the election results final and official.
This is the municipality’s or county’s best chance to notice and correct problems in the vote-totals. Citizen observers can help to ensure that anomalies—such as a suspiciously high number of blank ballots, which might have resulted from a malfunctioning voting machine—are noticed and resolved. The presence of citizen observers can help to make sure required procedures are followed--such as examining each precinct's totals for suspiciously high proportions of undervotes.
Instructions for observing canvass meetings are here.
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5. Encourage your local officials to perform post-election voting machine audits and observe them.
After every election in the November of even-numbered years, after election results have been declared final, GAB randomly selects a very small number of precincts statewide and instructs those municipalities to conduct post-election voting machine audits. In addition, clerks may, if citizens request, verify the accuracy of voting-machine output at any time after the election--including before certification, if precautions are taken to preserve a well-documented chain of custody.
A voting-machine audit done at GAB's direction must consist of a hand count of all the votes in several races selected by the GAB, and comparison of the hand-count total to the machine-tabulated total. Although these audits have several serious limitations, which we documented in our 2013 report, they provide local election officials and citizens a valuable opportunity to assess how well the machines operated. Although GAB allows clerks to wait until after election results have been declared final, citizens should encourage local elections officials to perform them while there is still an opportunity to correct any errors that might be detected.
Audits performed at the initiative of local election officials or citizens can use more efficient methods of verifying the machines' results, some of which are referenced in the same report. Encourage your local election officials to adopt a practice of routinely auditing at least some randomly selected voting machines after every election. With routine practice, the audit process will become more efficient, and with publicity, even a small amount of random auditing will have a big deterrent effect on fraud and carelessness.
Regardless of whether the audit is ordered by GAB or done at local initiative, citizen observers can provide clerks with independent witnesses who can verify they performed the audits correctly; ensure the chain of custody of the ballots was adequately protected; and make sure any oddities that are noticed are not dismissed without being recorded and resolved.
Audits can be particularly efficient in those counties that use optical scan machines that preserve a digital image of each ballot (the ES&S DS200 or the Dominion Imagecast machines). A group of citizens in Dane County, using software that projects the images in something like a slide show, verified the outcome in the City of Madison mayoral primary of February 2015 in less than 45 minutes! (A full hand count would likely have taken the same number of people at least a full day.) Contact us at WiscElectionIntegrity@gmail.com for information on obtaining a copy of this software and written procedures for these audits.
Instructions for observing voting-machine audits are here.
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