December 12, 2015 at 8:24pm — Our local election officials do the best they can with voting-machine security–really, they do. They might or might not understand the dangers of illicit installation of wireless communications chips or software tampering, but they all know they need to keep those machines safely locked up between elections in town hall storage rooms, village police garages, and various other secure compartments.
I cannot count the times that local elections officials have earnestly reassured me of their diligence about that, and I sincerely believe every word. It seems rude to remind them that no matter how hard they try, they cannot count on having complete control, so I try to be gentle when I tell them that they still need to check the output for accuracy, just in case.
But one Connecticut town clerk got the message loud and clear when she went to retrieve the voting machine for an upcoming election and, to her great dismay, found it festooned with crepe paper and cardboard skeletons. One of the town board members had accommodated a local high school club’s request to use the town hall for a Halloween haunted house evening and had borrowed the janitor’s key ring for the event. The dusty, dark storage room made a perfect place for the skeletons.
That Connecticut elections clerk retired to Wisconsin, and I ran into her at a party tonight. Her story was the most humorous I’ve heard, but it’s unusual only in its colorful details. A Wisconsin county clerk once told me of returning from vacation to find the door to the room where the county election-management computer room hanging wide open. The county executive told her the cleaning crew had decided to take her vacation as an opportunity to clean that room. He apologized that they’d neglected to close the door when they left, but neither he nor the county clerk had realized the cleaning crew’s master key worked on that door, too.
Towns, villages, and cities are run by normally competent and well-meaning people who generally do the very best we can expect of them. But management tasks are frequently handled by part-time employees or even volunteers, and executive oversight is provided by local elected officials who often have even less training and experience.
We cannot imagine we can protect our voting machines from tampering simply by demanding local elections officials maintain fool-proof security programs. It’s just not within their power.
Transparent, rigorous post-election verification of voting machine output remains the only way local elections clerks, candidates, and voters can be sure that the machines performed accurately on Election Day–or discover if they did not in time to correct the output.