It’s a simple fact, not a scandal: Whether by accident or interference, any computer system can produce incorrect results on occasion.
So it is not surprising that both the cities of Stoughton, Wisconsin and North Kingstown, Rhode Island experienced voting-machine mishaps in 2014 and 2016, respectively.
The miscounts were remarkably similar. In each city, a municipal yes/no referendum was on the ballot, and each city was using DS200 voting machines manufactured by ES&S. In each city, the 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). All four tests failed to detect the problem before Election Day.
In each city, Election-Night results showed the referendum failing, but with vote totals that were literally unbelievable.
So in each city, municipal officials conducted a hand count of the paper ballots and certified the correct results on time. So in each city, no lasting harm was done.
But in each city, the sound of distant thunder was audible: If the error had been a simple yes/no flip (telling the machines to count marks in the ‘yes’ spot as ‘no’ votes, and vice-versa) instead of ignoring votes completely, routine canvass procedures wouldn’t have noticed the problem and officials would have unknowingly certified the wrong outcome.
And that’s where events diverge.
In Rhode Island, news media covered the incident and alerted the state’s civic community to the mishap. In response, 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 efficient audits are not full recounts, but they do ensure that any miscounts serious enough to identify the wrong winner will be detected and corrected before the election is certified final. The law passed, and now Rhode Island’s final election results are protected from both accidental and deliberate electronic miscounts. Rhode Island’s election officials no longer demand that voters trust the voting machines. Instead, they routinely prove that they are certifying only the right winners.
In Wisconsin, however, the Stoughton mishap evoked only a civic yawn. Only one local newspaper reported the incident, in only a small item on an inside page. Few local officials were aware of the problem, and those who were aware did not understand what had happened. Civic organizations other than this one took no notice.
Wisconsin’s civic community showed itself willing to accept a risk that Rhode Island’s considered intolerable.
For nine years, I worked on Wisconsin’s election security: study, observation, interviews, and attending national conferences. I can explain a lot about the vulnerabilities and the possible safeguards.
What I cannot explain is why good and sober Wisconsin citizens stubbornly choose to rely on luck and trust instead of genuine election security. How can it possibly be that, after the events surrounding the November 2020 election demonstrated how very fragile that trust is, that the good people of Wisconsin still do not demand the trust-building measures now used in Rhode Island and elsewhere?
I do not know why Wisconsin election officials still cling to canvass procedures that pre-date computers while other states adopt modern canvass procedures capable of identifying and correcting any serious miscount, and of disproving irresponsible allegations of hacking. I do not understand why Wisconsin voters are satisfied with occasional spot-checks that are unable to confirm outcomes, or why no one seems to care that Wisconsin has no statutory procedures for correcting the miscounts that are occasionally noticed in those spot-checks.
Things I do know: That our local election officials are naïve about the risks. Among the arguments spoken straight to my face: “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.” One of my most jarring moments came when a Wisconsin municipal clerk argued with me by saying: “Yes, the convenience store reconciles its computerized cash register every night, but they are counting money, not just votes.”
I know that Wisconsin election officials are 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 from the federal Elections Assistance Commission, the Presidential Commission on Elections Administration and the National Academies of Sciences.
But why? That I don’t know. Why do clerks in other states stay abreast of advances in election security while Wisconsin’s clerks do not? Why are Wisconsin reporters not even curious when those clerks say things like “the equipment is never connected to the internet,” even as the reporters 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 effective election security, 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 routine canvass procedures. It seemed a no-brainer.
Then, as we watched the taillights of states like Georgia, Maryland, and Florida modernize their canvass practices and leave Wisconsin’s in the dust, I could only hope that Wisconsin would not be the last.
I’m no longer active in Wisconsin. My husband and I left the state in late 2021. I transitioned this website to an inactive state, but still hope it might be useful to others who can take up the cause of genuine election security. I believe its content could still:
1) contribute a vocabulary and framework to an informed and productive civic discussion that advances the cause of election-securing canvass procedures in Wisconsin;
2) enable Wisconsin media to cover the story as a public service, even though the issue—if covered responsibly—has no inherent partisan frisson; and
3) enable and motivate civic-minded individuals and organizations to pick up the cause.
Explore the links in the menu above for more information.
If anyone is interested in taking possession of this url —and in using it for a genuinely nonpartisan effort to promote practices endorsed by national, nonpartisan election-security authorities— please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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