Legislature set to gut recount law: Not a problem

April 17, 2015 at 7:45pm — The Wisconsin legislature is set to amend state elections law pertaining to recounts under s.9.01, Wis.Stats, in a way that makes no sense with respect either to partisan interests or to election integrity.  The only thing that can be motivating the proposed provisions of Senate Bill 96 is a child-like trust in the reliability of the computers inside our voting machines.

Under both current law and the proposed amendment, any candidate can request a recount, but they are required to pay the cost of the recount unless the margin of victory is small. Under current law, election officials will recount the preliminary results at no cost if the computers tabulated a victory margin less than one-half of one percent, and candidates must pay $5 per ward if the margin is between 0.5% and 2.0%. If the computer output gave the victor a margin of more than 2%, the loser must pay the full cost of any recount.

Under the proposed legislation, election officials will perform recounts at no cost only if the margin is less than 0.25%. Candidates will have to pay the actual cost for all other recounts, although the cost of the recount will be refunded if the recount overturns the preliminary results.

Although this legislation is being sponsored and promoted by Republicans–Senator Devin LeMahieu of Oostburg and Rep. Joan Ballweg of Markesan–Republican candidates are just as likely to be hurt as any other candidates—perhaps more likely, depending upon who you assume is most willing and able to commit electronic election fraud.  

And the legislation will hurt every citizen who cherishes our freedom to exercise our right to self-government, regardless of party affiliation. Here’s why:

Computer glitches, human programmer errors, and electronic malfunctions have no partisan loyalties. They will hurt Republican candidates just as readily as any other.  As we recently saw in Stoughton, where dust bunnies voted on 1.27% of the ballots cast in one precinct, electronic tabulation can be off by more than 0.25% simply by virtue of random, unpredictable malfunction. The Medford miscount of 2004–believed to have been an inadvertent programming error but never actually investigated, as miscounts never are–disenfranchised every voter who chose the straight party ticket, about a third of the voters in that presidential election! Errors of this type are not scandalous or surprising; they are occasionally unavoidable and should be anticipatedwhenever we use computers.

In addition, experts in elections technology will tell you that, depending upon ballot design, as many as 0.5% of the voters’ marks will be unreadable by optical scan machines, although voter intent may be obvious to human eyes. The clearest example of this I ever saw was a would-be Republican voter who drew a circle around each Republican candidate’s name, though never straying into the area where he or she should have recorded the votes. The machine saw nothing but white space, but any human eye could easily discern an intended vote for every Republican on the ballot. Without a recount or an audit, those Republican votes were completely lost. Again, non-scandalous, non-partisan, and an entirely predictable event when using computers.

Finally, we come to the issue of hacking. Dollars to doughnuts, the Republican sponsors of this bill believe that Republican candidates are more likely to be targeted by hackers than other parties’ candidates. Look at 4Chan; look at Anonymous. When and if they target Wisconsin elections, who are they going to go after? There must be hundreds, maybe thousands, of left-wing techies with the ability and willingness to hack into the companies that program Wisconsin’s voting machines.  

On that inevitable day when they find their way into Wisconsin’s vote-counting software, SB 96 will make it more likely they will escape detection.  Under current law, hackers need to flip only 1% of the Republican vote in a toss-up election to create a 2% victory margin that puts the results outside the recount margin. Under the new law, hackers will need to flip only 5 out of every 4,000 Republican votes to prevent anyone from demanding a recount and detecting the theft of a hard-earned, expensive Republican victory.

However, I am not going to put any effort into opposing this legislation. Not because I want to protect Republican candidates or those of any other party, but because I don’t think recounts are very useful for election integrity even under the current law.  

Wisconsin’s self-governing citizens shouldn’t have to demand, election by election, that our government check the output of our voting machines’ computers for accuracy, and we certainly shouldn’t have to pay extra for it when we suspect a computer error might be larger than 0.25%. Your bank doesn’t wait for you to demand an audit before it audits its computers’ output, and certainly doesn’t limit its audits to instances when only tiny errors are suspected. And then it gives you a statement so that  you can check, too.

Your grocery store audits the output of its scanners without its customers paying extra for that safeguard. And then it gives you a receipt, so that  you can check, too.

Wisconsin citizens don’t have to demand and pay for verification of the DOC computer output that keeps track of criminals on probation and parole–DOC employees do that as part of their job. Wisconsin school boards don’t have to demand and pay for double-checking of the output of the computers that calculate school aids–DPI employees and legislative employees do that routinely.

Responsible public managers, like responsible business owners, check their computers’ output for errors—both tiny and large—as routine, prudent IT management. When the computers are deciding who will govern us, there is no sensible reason why the burden is on voters and candidates to demand and pay for checks of the computers’ accuracy.

What Wisconsin needs is what 20 other states already have, and what every national elections-administration and information-technology expert has recommended from very inception of electronically counted election results: Routine (that is, after every election) post-election verification of electronically tabulated voting-machine output before those preliminary results are certified as final.