Friday, March 30, 2018 - In defense of our right to self-government, please contact the Wisconsin Elections Commission in the next few days to tell them: Include routine election auditing in Wisconsin's application for federal election-security funding.
Chances like this don't come along very often. Congress sits on its hands for years, ignores problems, messes around, and then--when an issue is hot--throws some money at the states and says "Spend it quick!"
When that happens, states need to be able to grab the money and spend it on something worthwhile.
That is just what has happened with election security. Voters have been warning, shouting, complaining, and worrying for years about the dangers of poorly managed election technology, and then all of a sudden Congress awoke and leapt out of bed. (Thank you, Vladimir!) Last Friday, Congress passed a federal budget bill that includes $380 million for grants to the states for improving election security.*
Just short of $7 million of that is earmarked for Wisconsin--pending the Wisconsin Elections Commission's submission of a plan for spending it.
Thirteen states should definitely spend their money to replace unauditable voting machines--the kind that don't use or create a paper record of each ballot. But that's not Wisconsin's problem. Paperless vote-counting computers have always been illegal here.
Wisconsin's big election-security hole--where we lag most other states--is not that our elections are unauditable. Wisconsin elections are simply unaudited.
Wisconsin is in relatively good shape on most other aspects of election security. The WEC has done a good job with those systems they control, which are the voter-registration system and the 'canvass reporting system,' the automated system that counties use to report results they have already counted and certified. In addition to having respectable security, both these systems also have effective backup in case of manipulation or failure. With same-day registration at the polls, hackers have to ask themselves how much effort they are going to waste deleting Wisconsin voters' registrations when we will be able immediately to vote anyway, with only about five minutes' re-registration inconvenience. And the canvass reporting system kicks in only after our votes have already been counted in the polling places and municipal clerks' offices. Any hacking of that would be easily detectable and reversible, even without a serious audit effort.
But Wisconsin has no more security for our voting machines than any other state that uses paper ballots, and a paper trail is merely decorative if the ballots are sealed on Election Night and never seen again.
Our elections' biggest unprotected vulnerability is that our county boards of canvass make a habit of declaring election results final without lifting a finger to check to see whether the vote-counting computers counted our votes correctly. That practice is justifiably illegal in 25 states (26 if you count D.C.) and contrary to every national election authority's recommendation.
The practical solution: Wisconsin law provides county election officials with paper ballots and allows them to check accuracy before they certify, but they choose not to. The problem isn't time or money. Wisconsin's county clerks have as much time for the canvass as their counterparts in states that do audit, and modern election-audit methods are so efficient they could almost be funded from petty cash.
So we can only guess why our county officials continue to force us to trust our franchise to unaudited computer output--something they wouldn't tolerate for a millisecond from their banks and ATMs. My best guess is that they've been allowed to ignore that basic managerial responsibility for so long that they fear they will find a host of problems when they start to look. Look at the panic this county official exhibited as she refused an observer's request for verification during the 2016 recount. That level of distress looks to me like she knew the machines' unreliability would be revealed if she allowed verification, so she refused to hand count "even five ballots." And she was right: the machines were, in fact, miscounting and were later decertified by the Wisconsin Elections Commission.
What voters need to do:
Contact the WEC and tell them that you want them to include funding for routine audits during the county canvass in Wisconsin's federal grant application. WEC staff are up to date on national election-administration trends, and I believe they understand the need for, and practicality of, routine election audits. In addition, I sense that WEC Commissioners are favorably disposed to effective election audits and will do the right thing if enough citizens express interest and support.
- Tweet to @WI_Elections to say that you want to see county election audits in the application for federal funding;
- Email Chair Mark Thomsen and Administrator Meagan Wolfe at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Snail-mail them at Wisconsin Elections Commission, P.O. Box 7984, Madison, Wisconsin 53707-7984, with copies to U.S. Election Assistance Commission, 1335 East West Highway, Suite 4300, Silver Spring, MD 20910, and to Jill Lau, Chair, Wisconsin County Clerks Association, 421 Nebraska St, Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin 54235.
If you want to do more, you can use these web-contact forms to tell Senator Baldwin, Senator Johnson, and the US Election Assistance Commission that they, too, should encourage the WEC to seek funds for election auditing in Wisconsin.
Also, please, tell other voters about this so that they, too, can weigh in for election audits. The WEC hardly ever gets any citizen input on election security issues, and they will definitely sit up and take notice if they get a lot now. So go for it!
* It would be unfair to accuse every member of Congress of inaction. Wisconsin's very own Mark Pocan introduced an excellent elections-security bill, the Secure America's Future Elections (SAFE) Act a year ago. As other representatives wake up to the issue, it's still collecting new co-sponsors. If you live outside Wisconsin's Second Congressional District, contact your congressperson today and ask them to sign on. If you live in Rep. Pocan's district, tell him "Thank you!"
Main point: Wisconsin's elections officials have been telling themselves a simple story--"The only threat to election results is Internet hacking, so we can keep elections safe just by keeping the voting machines unconnected."
There's an equally simple--but more true--story they could be telling themselves: "We don't have the power to prevent every type of miscount, but we can keep elections safe anyway by using the paper ballots to detect and correct miscounts, regardless of cause."
In a recent newspaper article, I wrote that election officials should check the accuracy of our computer-tabulated election results as routinely as city treasurers check our computer-tabulated property tax bills.
That proposal is uncontroversial. Every national election expert promotes routine audits. So do other authorities, such as the US Department of Homeland Security. When presented with the idea that election clerks should verify the right winners before they declare election results final, every voter responds with either “Well, duh” or a wide-eyed “You mean they don’t do that now?!?!”
Wisconsin election officials, however, think that all of us are wrong about that. In response to my article, I received the following email from the county clerk in a mid-sized Wisconsin county:
"Good afternoon, Ms. McKim: Please tell me if a piece of Wisconsin certified equipment has ever been hacked, or how one could even attempt to hack said equipment. The equipment used in my county is never connected to the Internet. It's not even connected to our county network. Unless someone has figured out a way to hack through the unit's power cord, our equipment is basically unhackable."
Except for that last word, my correspondent’s few facts are correct. It's the same argument that county clerks have used for years. Let’s review a few additional facts. You won’t need to be an IT security expert or a Russian hacker to see the possibilities...Read more
The Racine County Citizens' Audit is ON! Sign up to help count votes, using this website.
Volunteers will be counting votes at the Racine County Courthouse, 720 Wisconsin Avenue, Racine on Tuesday November 14 and Wednesday, November 15. An additional shift will be added on Thursday morning if necessary.
Vote-counters will work in three-hour shifts, starting at 9 AM and 1 PM each day. Volunteers can work for more than one shift if they want.
The task will be easy, fun, and rewarding. A county employee will display each ballot using a document projector, so that many people can see the same ballot at the same time. You’ll sit at the county board conference table and use a hand-held mechanical clicker to count votes for only one candidate. You'll be given frequent opportunities to compare your totals with another counter doing the same thing.
We're paying for this, so volunteers will be treated with respect--unlike at last year's recount.
If you cannot stay for three hours to help count the votes, drop in anytime to observe. You will see how your county clerk could perform an efficient, transparent hand count at any time he or she wants--such as before declaring election results final.
Having observers come and go all day will also demonstrate citizen demand for better election verification practices. So please stop in! Or sign up to help count votes, using this website.
This citizens' effort is necessary, because Wisconsin elections need, but do not have, routine manual verification of all election results. In both the election and the recount last year, the Racine County Board of Canvassers certified computer-tabulated vote totals that were obviously incorrect. In one precinct, the machine said that 1 in every 12 ballots contained no vote for president! In doing that, they disenfranchised every voters whose ballot had been wrongly read by the machines--we estimate more than a thousand.
Blind trust in voting machines--new or old--cannot continue. In this day and age, it is crazy to trust any computer's output without checking--and vote-counting computers are the most attractive targets of any.
Please visit this website to sign up! And tell a friend—observers will be welcomed.
This weekend, election integrity advocates from around the nation will gather in California to share information and ideas for moving America ahead toward fully protected voting rights--including the right to have our votes counted accurately.
The Second Annual National Election Integrity Conference, sponsored by a host of organizations, will convene in Berkeley on Saturday.
The entire conference will be livestreamed on Facebook, and videos of the presentations will go up later on the YouTube channel for the California Election Integrity Coalition.
I (Karen McKim) will be doing two workshops, one with Jan BenDor of the Michigan Election Reform Association, on the lessons from the Wisconsin and Michigan recounts, and one on the auditing election results with digital ballot images. (The materials I'll be distributing are at those links.)
Main point: Public officials must keep the public both safe and calm.
The danger is when reassurance, not safety, becomes the goal.
Election officials are keeping our voter registration system safe.
They are reassuring us about our vote-counting system.
What voters need: “Smile, you son of a bitch.” – Martin Brody, to the shark.
Yesterday’s Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC) meeting was packed with more cameras than I’d ever seen there. A few days earlier, the federal Department of Homeland Security announced that Russian-government backed hackers had tested the security of Wisconsin’s online voter registration system. They hadn’t gotten in. The ‘attack’ was, the computer experts say, like jiggling a locked door knob.
“I don’t get it.” I told a reporter as the meeting got under way. “What's the news here? Hackers are continuously testing every computer system. The Russian government is known for cybercrime. It would be news if they were not testing the security of our elections systems.”Read more
There’s good news and there’s … no-worse-than-usual news.
The good news is that today, the Wisconsin Elections Commission did what no Wisconsin elections agency has done since the introduction of computerized vote tabulation: They decertified a voting machine, the Optech Eagle.
And they did it for the best of reasons: It wasn’t counting our votes reliably. Now that so many ballots are marked in voters' homes, in all sorts of ink, the machine is "no longer meeting voters' and officials' expectations."
This is good. Not perfect, but good. The vote was unanimous. The Commissioners didn't debate whether the machine should be decertified, but how quickly. They didn’t vote to decertify immediately, but they soberly considered that possibility. And they did adopt some immediate safeguards.
As of today, all municipalities using the Optech Eagle must either count mailed-in ballots by hand, or re-make (that is, copy over) them using ink that can be detected by the machines. And they must keep doing that until they replace the machines, no later than December 31, 2018. In addition, if any contest tabulated by an Optech Eagle is recounted, it must be by a hand count.
This decision had several good angles to it.
First, the Commissioners’ comments, specifically mentioning Racine County, indicated that they accepted as true the reports of Liz Whitlock and the other observers during that recount, even though Racine County officials have not yet acknowledged any problems.
Granted, it would have taken chutzpah for the Commissioners actively to deny that Racine miscounted both the election and the recount, given all the hard evidence of similar miscounts from other counties and the weirdly high undervote rates that county's canvass signed off on.
But the culture of election officials, in Wisconsin and elsewhere, is to band together against concerned voters and, if not to deny their truth, at least ignore it. But in the discussion today, I did not pick up one whiff of the get-these-troublesome-citizens-out-of-here attitude to which we’re so accustomed. Good work, Liz and the rest of the Racine team! The State hears you, even if your clerk doesn't (yet).
Second, the instruction that any recount be conducted by hand shows more courage and commitment than I’ve seen from any public official in a while. Here’s why: If some county decides to contest that requirement, it’s likely that a court would decide that the WEC has no statutory authority to order a hand-counted recount. The Commissioners were aware of that when they voted, but went ahead anyway. Set aside the fact that recounts are a thing of the past in Wisconsin; I like the kind of leadership that says, “Let’s do the right thing and see if anyone tries to stop us.”
Third, the decision signifies a distinct break from the old Government Accountability Board’s attitude toward elections technology. The old GAB—both board and staff—seemed resistant to even the idea that voting machines could miscount. I remember talking with them about the Medford miscount, when misprogrammed machines ignored all straight-party ticket votes. About a third of that city’s votes in a presidential election were lost. GAB staff told me, with a pained expression, “You can’t blame that on the machines!”, as if I would hurt the machine’s feelings if it heard me say it needed to be audited. I can so easily imagine the old GAB Director Kevin Kennedy defending the Optech Eagle with such an argument.
But WEC Director Michael Haas and the Commissioners are willing to take a stand: A machine that cannot count a valid vote has got to go.
I know I may be giving WEC credit for understanding the obvious, but it is a change from the way they were talking only two years ago. And that's good.
The no-worse-than-usual news is, well, unsurprising.
- The staff analysis of decertification stressed cost and convenience for clerks above all other considerations—to the point where I sat there seriously trying to think of how we could frame the risk of election fraud as a cost issue.
- No one ever has investigated or resolved the causes of the worst Optech Eagle miscount. The WEC is just guessing it was the wrong ink. In Marinette, three voting machines missed 9.6%, 26.5%, and 30.8% of the votes on the ballots they processed. It's almost certain that ink had something to do with it, but if the voters marked their ballots at home, why did voters in one section of town use unreadable ink at more than three times the rate of another part of town? And to add to the mystery, the municipal clerk told me that most of the absentee ballots in all three precincts were in-person early voters who marked their ballots in her office. Why would she provide the wrong pen at all, never mind provide it at different rates to the voters from the different precincts? Finally, in the one municipality where WEC staff did do a serious investigation of the cause of an Optech Eagle miscount, they couldn't pin it entirely on ink. Something else is going on with those machines, and remaking the ballots might not fix it.
- Director Michael Haas, on at least two occasions today, referred respectfully to our testimony, and clearly understood what we were saying. But when he spoke most directly to the prospect of future routine election audits, he called it a ‘legislative issue.’ To me, that revealed his perception that Wisconsin’s local election clerks will not agree to verify election results unless forced by law. He’s probably correct, but that’s pretty darn sad. Thank goodness few other public officials take the same attitude toward their work product.
- In my oral testimony, I cited several instances in which county boards of canvass certified obviously incorrect vote totals. I also spoke of the hard fact that none ever verify the vote totals before they certify. Sure enough, like a patellar reflex, the municipal clerk who spoke next offered indignant testimony: “We do too care about accuracy,” though she offered no facts to back up that claim.
The truth of her statement depends on what she means by ‘care.’ I don’t doubt that she “feels concern or interest.“
But until she routinely verifies the vote totals before certifying them, she does not “exercise serious attention or effort to avoid damage or risk.”
So, WEC's attitude toward election accuracy is improving. But the local election officials still haven't mastered Step 1: Accept that you have a problem.
Inaccurate preliminary vote totals are not a problem--if miscounts
are detected and fixed before election results are declared final.
The problem is, as these incidents show, that Wisconsin's local election officials
are making no effort to detect and correct even obvious miscounts.
Have the hackers noticed that yet?
* * *
Following December's presidential recount, when county clerks reported corrected vote totals to the Wisconsin Elections Commission, they changed at least 17,681 votes from the totals they had previously reported.
Ward by ward, candidates sometimes got more votes, sometimes less. We don't know the full number of miscounted votes, because if recounters both subtracted and added votes to one candidate's total in a single ward, only the net change showed up in the revised totals. Election researchers at the UW-Madison, Harvard, and MIT worked with the data and estimated that in the original results, more than 1 in every 170 votes had been miscounted. *
If you can think of a way to miscount a valid vote, it's likely that somewhere a Wisconsin vote was miscounted like that.
The recount discovered hundreds of absentee ballots still in their envelopes, uncounted on Election Day.
Write-in votes had been treated with extraordinary carelessness. The recount discovered that 1 in every 7 of Evan McMullin's voters had been disenfranchised in the original count. Typos had erased nearly half the votes in precincts in Oneida and Milwaukee Counties. Votes had been double-counted in Eau Claire County.
The miscounts in Marinette, Outagamie, and Racine Counties are of particular interest to those who wonder whether Wisconsin's local election officials are attentive, prudent IT managers.
Those counties and others used a voting machine called the "Optech Eagle." This was once the workhorse of Wisconsin elections, but it never could read votes unless they were marked in an ink that contained carbon.
It didn't read non-carbon ink in 2016, either, when tens of thousands of voters submitted absentee ballots they had marked someplace other than a polling booth equipped with an approved marking device.
So on Election Night, results indicated that Racine County voters were weirdly uninterested in the presidential race. Across the rest of the state, only about 1 in every 130 voters (0.77%) left their ballots blank for president. But in Racine County, almost 1.8% of the ballots were counted as if they were blank. In the City of Racine, the rate was even higher--2.6%. In individual Racine County precincts, up to 1 in every 12 ballots was counted as blank.
In Outagamie County, too, Optech Eagles were telling election officials that dozens of voters had cast no vote for president. In one municipality there, the machine saw no vote for president on more than 1.4% of the ballots.
The machines in the City of Marinette took the prize. The machine that counted ballots cast by absentee voters in the City of Marinette's 7th and 8th Wards printed out results indicating no presidential vote on 9.6% of the ballots. The machine counting Wards 1, 3, and 5 saw no votes on 26.5% of the ballots.
And the machine counting Wards 2, 4, and 6 saw no presidential vote on 30.8% of the ballots it attempted to count.
To their discredit, local election officials either did not notice these obvious errors, or noticed them but chose not to correct them. Officials in these counties signed legal documents attesting that they had reviewed the election results and found them to be "correct and true." But in fact, they hadn't done that at all. At least not until the recount forced them to.
Marinette officials, who conducted their recount by hand, corrected their miscount in the recount. Outagamie officials recounted using the same machines and therefore did not detect their miscount until ordered to do a biennial voting-machine audit in January. By then, it was too late to correct the official vote totals.
Racine County officials still haven't resolved their weird vote totals. They recounted by machine and so certified the bizarre vote totals twice--once after the election and once after the recount--without ever checking to see why they were so weird. In fact, county election officials were so determined to trust unexamined computer output that they refused to check accuracy even after the machines could be seen to be visibly miscounting during the recount.
To their credit, staff of the Wisconsin Elections Commission took steps to figure out what was going on. In January, they asked Outagamie County to send their election materials, including the ballots, to Madison so that staff could examine them and make sure the miscounts were what everyone suspected: an inability to read the ink that many voters used to mark their ballots.
They concluded that ink almost certainly contributed to the miscounts, but that didn't explain all the missed votes. WEC staff concluded “This exercise did not produce a result that allowed staff with confidence to understand how the Optech Eagle treated these ballots.”
Something else, in addition to ink color, was going on, and they couldn't tell what it was.
In June, staff wrote a memo to Commission members, telling them "“The analysis of the performance of the Optech Eagle identified a significant limitation of the equipment.”
The Commission itself then did the right thing, too. They instructed staff to prepare a plan for decertifying the machine, to be decided next Tuesday at their September 26 meeting.
When the Optech Eagle is decertified, it will be illegal to use in Wisconsin. Municipalities will be forced to upgrade to newer machines with enhanced ability to count votes marked in any ink. And that will make our elections a little safer from miscounts. Professor Douglas W. Jones, of the University of Iowa Computer Sciences Department told me: "I've tested the newer machines with everything that I can imagine a voter using. Even glitter pens work, though I still wouldn't recommend them."
We cannot overlook the fact that two failures produced these miscounted election results.
First, the machines miscounted.
Second, local election officials certified those miscounts as "correct and true" anyway.
Replacing the unreliable voting machines with new ones will solve one limited problem. But no sensible person believes that no voting machine will ever again miscount Wisconsin votes. No computer system can do that, particularly when the computers are scattered among every Wisconsin city, village, and town; managed by an army of IT-naive temporary staff; and for which security is a responsibility split among vendors, service technicians, and local election officials.
How many elections did those old machines miscount before the recount revealed the problem to the general public?
And why didn't Wisconsin's election officials notice and correct this problem sooner?
Here's why: Statutes provide Wisconsin's local election officials with a review period following every election, called the 'canvass' during which they can review accuracy before they declare the election results final.
But the election officials don't actually review accuracy. Most clerks are more polite than you see on that Racine County video, but they all place the same blind faith in computer-calculated vote totals. Wisconsin's local election officials just point to the computer print-out and say "Oh, look who won."
On Election Night, when the City of Marinette machines produced such weird numbers, poll workers noted tabulation problems in their Election-Night written reports. Yet neither the city nor county clerks took corrective action. They knowingly certified results that were obviously missing hundreds of votes.
You won't find a county canvass anywhere in Wisconsin that does better. The Dane County clerk will tell you he's the only clerk in the state who checks machines' accuracy after every election (2 machines). But if you press, he will admit he doesn't do that during the canvass. He waits until after he has already legally sworn that the results are accurate and has declared them final.
If the WEC decides to decertify next Tuesday, we commend them for taking action to solve the Optech Eagle part of the problem. We are also asking that they take steps to solve the other half: we are asking the WEC to provide the county canvasses with more specific instructions and stronger encouragement to verify accuracy before certifying election results.
More than 20 other states have already built some kind of verification into their canvass procedures, and they do not declare election results final until they have confirmed accuracy. Wisconsin is no better off than states with paperless touchscreens if all we do is seal our paper ballots in bags and never use them to verify the vote totals.
At the very least, Wisconsin's county clerks need to begin to use simple, routine 'reasonability tests,' which are simple calculations they can do at their desks to look for vote totals that don't make any sense--and then resolve any anomalies they see.
If we have any dedicated county clerks who want to take the lead to bring Wisconsin's canvass procedures into the 21st Century, (ask yours!) our statutes already allow that clerk to adopt whatever canvass procedures he or she wants. National authorities stand ready to help with the implementation of modern methods of election auditing.
There is no reason for Wisconsin voters to continue to trust our right to self-government to anonymous computer programmers or whoever hacked in behind them, or to hope that some IT Fairy Godmother will from now on protect our voting machines from any more glitches.
Our election clerks could be checking accuracy if they chose to--and we need to insist that they do.
* Stephen Ansolabehere, Harvard University; Barry C. Burden and Kenneth R. Mayer, UW-Madison; Charles Stewart III, Massachusetts Institute of Technology - Learning from Recounts, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Political Science Department Research Paper No. 2017-12. July 2017.
"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.
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.
Several other places found miscounts when they checked their presidential vote totals with hand counts.
We cannot expect that every single vote will be accurately counted. A few votes will always be ambiguously marked, a few ballots processed incorrectly for one reason or another. That's why Wisconsin statutes make it pretty easy for candidates who lose elections by less than 0.25% of the votes to get recounts. We don't want winners chosen by small, random errors.
However, miscounts larger than 0.25% are not supposed to happen. That's why Wisconsin statutes make candidates who lose elections by more than that pay for the recount themselves if they want one. We don't want taxpayers to have to finance recounts in which the winner won't change when the random errors are fixed.
Despite the accuracy standard in the state's recount law, Wisconsin's 2016 recount found error rates in many jurisdictions larger than 0.25%. The most frequent were human errors when tabulating write-in votes. Inaccurate write-in totals were found in nearly every county. Statewide on Election Night, election inspectors had missed 15.6%, or more than 1 in every 7, of the votes for Evan McMullin, the most popular write-in candidate.
But worrisome electronic miscounts were found, too, particularly with one model of voting machine, the Optech Eagle.
For their Election Day count, the City of Marinette had used three Optech Eagles to process their mailed-in, early, and absentee ballots. Marinette County conducted its recount manually and discovered that the three machines had missed a significant number of valid votes. One voting machine failed to detect votes on 30.8% of the ballots. The undervote rate had been obvious on the poll tapes printed out on Election Night, and recount minutes note that the poll workers had noted problems with the machines.
However, both the municipal and the county canvass originally certified the miscounted results, and did not correct them until forced to do so by the recount.
City of Marinette Ballots counted by Optech Eagle, November 8, 2016
Election-night opscan poll tapes,
Wards 7, 8
Number of ballots counted by the Optech Eagle 1
Undervotes reported on the poll tape1
Percent of ballots read as blank by the voting machine
1 – From the poll tapes, which were included in the Marinette County recount minutes.
2 – The number appears to be 39 on the poll tape photocopied in the recount minutes, but the text of the recount minutes says 29. If the correct figure is 39, the blank-ballot rate is 12.9%, or about 1 in every 8 ballots.
Marinette and WEC officials attributed the miscount to the inability of the Optech Eagle to count any votes marked in ink not containing carbon. However, this does not explain why the miscount rate varied so greatly among the three precincts. Absentee ballots would have been marked either at a single location (the municipal clerk’s office) or at home, providing no apparent reason why voters in one precinct would have used incorrect pens at more than three times the rate of voters in another.
Following the recount, in January 2017, WEC ordered a few manual voting-machine audits in randomly selected municipalities where counties had used computers in the recount. Three Optech Eagle machines were selected.
One of these was the Village of Hortonville in Outagamie County. When 1,051 ballots were counted by hand, after having been counted on Election Day and in the recount by Optech Eagles, 15 previously uncounted votes were found, revealing an error rate of 1.42%, or 1 in every 70 votes. Both city and county officials attempted to discover the cause of this miscount, as did WEC staff. None could clearly ascertain the cause of the miscount, and WEC staff concluded “This exercise did not produce a result that allowed staff to understand how the Optech Eagle treated these ballots with confidence,” and “The analysis of the performance of the Optech Eagle identified a significant limitation of the equipment.”
A second manual audit of an Optech Eagle, conducted by the City of Eau Claire, found an error rate of 0.35%, according to material submitted by the City to the WEC. While less serious than the other miscounts, this is still larger than the 0.25% error rate anticipated in statute, and so should be considered unacceptable.
WEC has issued a strong warning to jurisdictions that continue to use the Optech Eagle. Most miscounts that could be diagnosed were caused by the type of ink used to mark the ballots. As a result, the WEC is strongly recommending that election officials recopy all mailed-in ballots onto new ballots, and cast the copied ballots rather than the originals.
Signs that Racine County certified incorrect Presidential vote totals.
Racine County used Optech Eagles to count more than 98% of its ballots on both Election Day and in the recount. If Racine County's Optech Eagles had miscounted on Election Day for the reason the Wisconsin Election Commission believes they miscounted elsewhere--that is, an inability to read the ink in which many mailed-in ballots were marked--Racine's votes would have been miscounted both times.
Therefore, it will take a manual count to determine whether votes were counted correctly. Only one Optech Eagle used in Racine County has been checked with a hand count. The Village of Mount Pleasant in Racine County was the third Optech Eagle selected by WEC for a manual voting machine audit. When 1,877 ballots were manually counted, 16 previously uncounted votes were found, for an error rate of 0.83%.
But what about those Racine results that no one has yet checked for accuracy?
Voters are not required to vote in every race on the ballot. In the 2016 election, about one in every 130 Wisconsin voters who cast ballots, or 0.77%, chose not to vote for president.
Undervote rates--the percentage of ballots on which the voting machines detected no presidential vote--much higher than the overall statewide rate could be a sign of miscounts of the same type discovered in Marinette, Hortonville, Eau Claire, and Mount Pleasant.
And Racine County's certified results do contain such a sign. In fact, results from 61 of Racine County's 68 polling places show undervote rates higher than the statewide rate.
Countywide, the Board of Canvass certified election results that included no presidential vote for 1.78% of the ballots countywide—more than twice the statewide undervote rate.
Within the City of Racine, certified results indicate no presidential vote was counted from 2.6% of the ballots. This result can be true only if 1 in every 38 City of Racine voters chose not to vote for president.
Results for six precincts are even higher—more than five times the statewide blank-ballot rate, up to one ballot in every 12 being counted without a vote for president.
Racine County Reporting Units with recount-certified results
indicating blank-ballot rates more than 5 times the statewide rate
Municipality / Ward
Percentage of ballots from which no presidential vote was counted
City of Racine, Ward 26
Village of Elmwood Park, Ward 1
City of Racine, Ward 35
City of Racine, Ward 1
City of Racine, Ward 5
City of Racine, Ward 25
Finally, there is some direct-observation evidence that Racine County's voting machines were miscounting. During the recount, observers were able to see each ballot well enough to count votes as the ballots were fed into the voting machines. In several precincts, the observers saw more votes than the machines counted. Their observations were consistent with the types of miscounts now documented in other jurisdictions.
However, when the observers reported these findings to the county officials, county officials refused to check the machines' accuracy, even in a precinct with fewer than 350 ballots. The request for a hand count to verify accuracy was energetically refused, as a deputy county clerk declared "I don't care if it's only five (ballots). I am not going to do a hand count for anybody."
Voter confidence, and our right to self-government itself, demands accurate vote-counting.
Neither voters nor election officials should shrug off such clear and serious signs of miscounted election results.
Even if they did not change the outcome this time, miscounts in excess of the 0.25% error rate written into in Wisconsin's recount law are dangerous. If we allow miscounts larger than that to remain undetected and uncorrected, we create a situation in which election results can be both wrong--if an error rate of more than 0.25% changed the outcome--and not subject to recount unless the 'losing' candidate can raise a lot of cash very quickly.
To sustain voter confidence, our election officials must adopt a responsible, managerial attitude toward accuracy.
They cannot continue to be unwilling to resolve well-founded suspicions of miscounted votes.