Most local government officials take responsibility for the accuracy of their work product.
No city treasurer would refuse to check accuracy of property-tax bills.
No county executive would release a report on annual expenditures without double-checking the addition.
For most local government officials, checking accuracy is just part of being a responsible manager. They don't need anyone to pass a law telling them: "Be sure to check your work!"
But the Wisconsin County Clerks Association is officially on record: They don’t want to.
And their work product is our election results.
The WCCA statement came in response to the Wisconsin Elections Commission’s September announcement that they were considering two measures to improve election security.
The first proposal involved once-every-two-years audits of individual voting machines, which are performed by municipal (not county) clerks. They are the only accuracy-checks the Commission has authority to order, but they have limited value. Not only are these audits limited to November elections in even-numbered years, they check only a few random voting machines, without confirming the right winners in any race.
But the municipal voting-machine audits are better than nothing. The Commission said it was considering ordering more machines audited than in previous years and requiring the audits to be completed before election results are declared final.
The second proposal would move Wisconsin slightly toward compliance with national standards for election security. The Commission said it was considering encouraging county clerks to perform election audits of the type recommended by election-security authorities.
WCCA's response was swift, naïve, and irresponsible. The county clerks didn’t want the Commission to require, or even encourage, the county clerks to perform genuine election audits.
Perhaps sensing they are defending the losing side in a national trend (they are), the county clerks also described how they want any audits restricted:
- They don't wanna check accuracy until after they have certified the election results.
- They don't wanna check accuracy for any but the top race on the ballot.
- And they want the State to pay extra if it even suggests they check accuracy.
I’m not making that up. The organization’s memo to the Wisconsin Elections Commission is reproduced, verbatim, below.
About delaying audits until after certification: The WCCA wrote that our paper ballots “should be treated like evidence and remain undisturbed” until after the clerks have reached their verdict and know whether anyone demands a recount. Let’s hope the Trial Judges Association doesn’t follow suit and refuse to look at the evidence until after they’ve reached their verdict and know whether anyone demands an appeal.
About auditing only the top race on the ballot: The WCCA’s message could be restated: “If you want us to protect the US Senate election, forget about protecting the Governor’s election.” Hackers are delighted to know ahead of time which race will be off limits to them, and which races will be on an honor system.
About making the state pay extra for accuracy: The WCCA clearly confirmed the clerks' rejection of the idea that accuracy is a normal managerial responsibility. Imagine a parks manager telling the county budget manager: “I signed off on this accounting of the user fees we collected. If you want me to make sure it's right, you'll need to pay extra.”
For a final, Trumpian flourish, the clerks blatantly misrepresented the findings of a study by MIT, Harvard, and the UW Madison researchers (Learning from Recounts, 2017). The WCCA memo claimed the researchers had declared that “hand counts of election results are inherently inaccurate.” Compare that to the researchers’ actual words:
“...careful hand counting in a recount is the gold standard for assessing the true vote totals — in large part because of the greater focus on a single contest, more deliberate processing of ballots, and careful observation by campaign officials and other interested parties....”
The researchers ultimately expressed no preference for either method of counting, concluding: "ballots originally counted by computer ... appear to be at least as accurate as ballots originally counted by hand."
* * *
Wisconsin statutes give county clerks the buck-stops-here responsibility for election results’ accuracy. Municipal clerks cannot verify results in federal, state, and county races; they have access to the ballots from only their own city, village, or town. And the WEC is the legal custodian of no ballots at all; has only a few days after county certification before they must certify; and has no statutory authority to question results the county has certified.
We must insist the county clerks fulfill their responsibility. They have the paper ballots. They have the time. Modern election-audit practices would allow them to verify a few races on the ballot in just two or three days, at most, out of the two weeks that statutes allow them before they must certify the election. The only cost would be the hand-counters’ time at $10 or $12 an hour—a tiny fraction of the county’s elections-administration budget. They could randomly select just a few races for verification—just enough to deter election thieves in the races most liable to attract their interest.
And yet, collectively, they refuse.
Now, the bright notes: The Commission ignored the WCCA's whining and voted unanimously to encourage county clerks to start auditing during their canvass. And as the WCCA memo states, a few county clerks have begun voluntarily to incorporate hand-counted audits into their routine canvass procedures.
Every county clerk in Wisconsin received a memo on October 4 explaining the current nationwide move to election auditing and providing the clerks with instructions on how to get started.
Only voters, though, can make it happen. Voters who care about election security should contact their county clerk to find out whether their votes in future elections will be protected with hand-counted audits during the county canvass.
If not, the next election on February 19 will provide an excellent opportunity for your clerk to begin developing routine election-audit practices, since it will likely be a low-turnout election. Your county clerk has plenty of time before February to learn about the various methods of checking accuracy and work out his or her local procedures.
Insist on it.