You tell me: Why does Wisconsin rely on trust and luck to protect its elections?

by Karen McKim, April 11, 2021

The cities of Stoughton, Wisconsin and North Kingstown, Rhode Island experienced nearly identical voting-machine mishaps in 2014 and 2016, respectively.

The problem played out like this: A municipal yes/no referendum was on the ballot. The cities used DS200 voting machines manufactured by ES&S, but those computers were accidentally misprogrammed to look for votes in the wrong place on the paper ballots. In each city, two pre-election tests were performed (by the city and county in Wisconsin and by the city and vendor in Rhode Island), but none of the four tests detected the problem. On Election Day, the machines counted more ‘no’ votes than ‘yes’ but so few votes were counted that the results were literally unbelievable. Municipal officials conducted a hand count and certified the correct results (both referenda actually passed), so no lasting harm was done. In both states, if the error had been a simple yes/no flip instead of ignoring votes, routine canvass procedures wouldn’t have noticed the problem and officials would have unknowingly certified the wrong outcome.

In Rhode Island, news media covered the incident, alerting the state’s civic community to the old adage: To err is human but to really foul things up requires a computer. That is, human errors are inevitable and when amplified by the power of computers, can really make a mess of things. So Common Cause of Rhode Island, the League of Women Voters of Rhode Island, the Rhode Island Board of Elections, Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea, and the Rhode Island Town and City Clerks Association came together to promote state legislation to add what are known as “risk-limiting audits” to that state’s routine canvass procedures.  These audits ensure that any outcome-altering miscounts will be detected and corrected before certification. The law passed, and now Rhode Island’s final election results are protected from both accidental or deliberate electronic miscounts.

The identical miscount in Stoughton, however, received no reaction. Not from the media, not from officials, not from civic organizations (other than this one), not from legislators. The inescapable conclusion is that Wisconsin is willing to accept a risk that Rhode Island considers intolerable. 

For nine years I’ve been working on Wisconsin’s election security: study, observation, interviews, and attending national conferences. I can explain a lot. What I cannot explain is why good and sober Wisconsin citizens remain stubbornly willing to rely on luck and trust to protect our elections, particularly when the events surrounding the November 2020 demonstrated how very fragile trust can be. I do not know why our state still clings to canvass procedures that largely pre-date computerized tabulation while other states adopt modern canvass procedures capable of protecting elections and disproving allegations of stolen elections. I do not understand why Wisconsin is satisfied with occasional voting-machine spot-checks that are undertaken with no intention to confirm outcomes or to correct any miscounts they find.

I do know that our local election officials are naïve about the risks. Among the quotes I’ve collected: “If these machines were capable of miscounting, the State wouldn’t let us use them,” and “Unless someone has figured out a way to hack through the unit’s power cord, our equipment is basically unhack-able.”

They are also demonstrably naive about national developments in election auditing. In September 2018, the Wisconsin County Clerks Association adopted a resolution that displayed ignorance of basic election-security recommendations such as those from the Presidential Commission on Elections Administration and the National Academies of Sciences (2018). One of my most jarring moments came when a Wisconsin clerk argued with me by saying: “Yes, the convenience store reconciles its cash register every night but they are counting money, not just votes.”

Why do clerks in other states stay abreast of advances in election security while Wisconsin’s clerks do not? Where is Wisconsin reporters’ skepticism, or even curiosity, when those clerks say things like “the equipment is never connected to the internet,” even as the reporters can see Election-Night results coming out of the county computer moments after being tabulated by the polling-place computers? Why do civic organizations in other states promote protective election-security measures, while their counterparts in Wisconsin promote mere trust? I truly do not know.

When I got involved in 2012, I had hoped to help make Wisconsin among the first in the nation to secure its elections with effective canvass procedures. Now, watching the taillights of states like Georgia, Maryland, and Florida modernize their canvass practices and leave Wisconsin’s in the dust, I can only hope Wisconsin is not among the last.

And that is the reason for placing this personal note on the home page of the Wisconsin Election Integrity website. My husband and I are planning to leave the state before the close of 2021, and I am winding down my activities. I am no longer organizing group projects, and am transitioning this website from an active status to one that will, I hope, be useful to others who might someday take up the banner, and:

1) contribute a vocabulary and framework to an informed and productive civic discussion that will advance the cause of election-securing canvass procedures in Wisconsin;

2) enable and motivate Wisconsin media to cover the story as a public service, even though the issue has no inherent partisan frisson; and

3) enable and motivate civic-minded individuals and organizations to pick up the cause after I leave.

Explore the links in the menu above for more information.

Contact me at info@WisconsinElectionIntegrity.org with questions or comments.

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