What do we want: “Not one wrong vote” or “Maybe a few thousand is okay”?

In brief:  Our election officials tell us that every single valid vote and not one single invalid vote should be counted. But if you watch closely, you’ll notice that election officials tend to tolerate any size or type of miscount unless it seems to affect the outcome.
Well, which is it? Do we want 100% accuracy, or do we want only approximate election results that probably identify the right winner? Until we face the need for clear and consistent standards, we cannot hold our election officials to any.

(Updated with additional information from a June 2017 report from WEC staff–see end of blog post.) 


May 30, 2017 — During the 15 years I supervised investigations for Wisconsin’s legislative oversight agency, I learned the value of several specific thinking skills. One was to be clear about expectations.  

Auditors call them ‘standards’. Investigations start when someone reports that something is not as it should be. A good investigator’s first step is to figure out: What is it that should be?  What would things look like if everything was working right?

If, for example, the complaint is “This permitting process takes too long”, we need to know how long people expect it to take.

This habit of noticing standards—or their absence–spilled over into the rest of my life. It’s useful. You probably know that you’re less likely to be swayed by a salesperson if you’ve already decided how much you want to spend before you set foot in the store.

And standards keep us heading in the right direction. As the Cheshire Cat told Alice, which way you need to go from here depends a good deal on where you want to get to.

The way things are now, however, paying close attention to the standards we set for our elections can make a person dizzy.

Sometimes we apply a strict standard:  Not a single wrong vote. Not one. 

According to Chris Ott, Executive Director of the Wisconsin ACLU, “We know precisely the number of eligible voters that is too many to keep away from the polls: even one.”

He was talking about Voter ID, and how it keeps some eligible voters from the polls.

Those who fuss about ineligible voters proclaim the same single-vote standard. In April 2015, I observed a Wisconsin county board of canvass as they decided what to do about a ballot cast by a voter who lacked ID. She had been given a provisional ballot. Those ballots are supposed to be sealed in an envelope and counted only after the voter returns with identification. However, the voter naively fed it into the voting machine right away, and it was counted.

There were 234,680 other ballots in that election. But the officials decided that if the voter did not provide identification by the deadline, they were going to go after that one rogue ballot. They were going to unseal the ballot bags, find it, and discard it. They were not willing to tolerate even one wrong vote.

And on those rare occasions when officials find evidence of voter fraud, they take action.  In 2014, a Wisconsin audit reviewed voting records in statewide elections from February 2010 through April 2014 and found that, across four years and 16 elections, a total of 33 felons might have cast illegitimate votes. The legislature directed the state elections agency to refer the cases to district attorneys for possible prosecution.

This single-vote standard is also applied to voting machines. Federal standards require no more than one miscounted vote in every 500,000 from perfectly marked ballots, when counted in laboratory tests.

In real life situations, modern paper-ballot systems have achieved 99.99% accuracy even when the ballots contain some poorly marked votes.  But in 2012, one Texas county thought “hand-marked paper ballots …open the door to ambiguous voter intent.” The possibility of one miscounted vote in 10,000 was too much for them, so they threw away their paper ballots and bought touchscreen voting machines instead.

Other times we apply a lax standard: A few thousand wrong or miscounted votes isn’t anything to worry about.

In the 2016 recount of Wisconsin’s presidential election, one county’s board of canvass discovered more than five dozen valid absentee ballots had been left uncounted on Election Day.  And the errors didn’t stop there. That county’s officials determined they and their voting machines had originally miscounted 1,475 votes—either not counted them when they should have, counted when they should not have, or counted them for the wrong candidate. Then, when reporting the recount results, they accidentally recorded 21 votes in the wrong candidate’s column. They did not correct that error when informed of it. (1)

Commenting after the recount, the county clerk said he was “extremely proud.” He made it clear he thought the recount had been unnecessary. Checking accuracy when the race is not close, he wrote, is “really quite an insult to suggest that we don’t know how to do our jobs.”

News media coverage of the recount reflected the same relaxed standard.  In Marinette County, the recount revealed that one city’s voting machines had failed to detect votes on 291, or 24%, of the ballots. This miscount was obvious to both municipal and county officials on Election Night, but they considered it tolerable and certified results without correcting the error. Only the recount forced correction.  No reporters considered the incident worthy of investigation or reporting, and it received no coverage.

The Wisconsin State Journal’s headline made its standard clear: “Recount found thousands of errors, but no major flaws.”

So which accuracy standard should we use—exact or approximate?

Readers familiar with my work may be surprised that I don’t think we should pursue 100% accuracy.  Until we can find someone other than humans to run our elections, perfection is not within our grasp. Reaching for it throws us off balance. For example, when the Texas county threw away voter-marked paper ballots because of a tiny miscount rate, it threw away its ability to detect miscounts of any size because it no longer had an auditable record.

The whole voter ID mess is the worst illustration of what happens when we seek perfection. Even without ID requirements, our registration system prevents all but insignificant voter fraud. And yet states with voter ID are spending millions to go after the remaining, minuscule problem. They are inconveniencing every honest citizen who casts a vote, and preventing thousands from voting at all. All in the vain pursuit of perfection.

So I’m not on board with an “every single vote” standard of accuracy.  But when our election officials and media yawn at thousands of miscounted votes, I’m not willing to say “Mistakes are okay,” either.

A complete lack of standards leaves the door open for wild inconsistency. I told you about one county where officials were willing to track down and discard even one illegitimate vote out of more than 234,000. And I told you about a county where standards were so lax that when they discovered 1,475 miscounting errors, the county clerk said he was insulted that anyone would request verification.  Both stories are from the same county, the same clerk, the same board of canvass—Dane County, Wisconsin.

That’s what happens without standards. Officials can pick and choose their own targets, grabbing one before Election Day and a different one after. They can apply one standard to voters’ errors and a different one to their own. Without standards, voters, candidates, and reporters—and conscientious officials—have no solid ground to stand on when they try to assess the quality of the elections.

If we had a clear standard—say, 99% confidence that the election results identified the correct winner—we could make better judgments about where to spend our effort and election resources. We could set a threshold for voter fraud, and establish that it is not worth millions of dollars to prevent a few people from voting twice. We could tell our election officials that no, it’s not okay to declare election results final until after you’ve corrected the voting-machine output that missed one in every four votes.

And by the way, should we count write-in votes?

It’s not just a question of picking a maximum acceptable error rate.  Wisconsin hasn’t yet settled the question of how—or even whether—to count write-in votes.

For those who believe elections need to do no more than identify winners, write-in votes are not worth counting. Some election officials appear to be in this group. In last November’s presidential election, Wisconsin officials counted only 84.3 percent of the votes for registered write-in candidate Evan McMullin until the recount forced a do-over.  That is, more than one in seven voters’ expressed preference for McMullin was simply ignored when officials first tabulated and certified the election results.

Bernie Sanders’ voters fared even worse. Wisconsin law currently does not require officials to count votes for unregistered write-in candidates.  The state elections agency allows counties, at their option, to report the total number of such votes in a miscellaneous category called ‘scattering.’ But not all counties do. So 24 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties did not report the number of miscellaneous write-in votes in the original results, the recount, or both. In these counties, write-ins for unregistered write-in candidates were literally—and legally—treated as if the ballots were blank. No one has any idea how many voters were so frustrated with the nominees that they were willing to go to the polls to express their feelings.

For those who believe election results need to reflect the voice of the people, that’s not okay. Some voters may be content to have the voice of the people constrained to saying only one of two things: either “I like the Democratic candidate” or “I like the Republican candidate.” But others want an opportunity to say that they want someone else, and to have that voice heard.

If and when we want to improve the accuracy of our elections—or even talk about it productively—we’re going to have to face and resolve these questions.

(1) The author detected the error—21 votes added to Cherunda Fox’s total for the Village of Waunakee—while reviewing the recount findings. An email exchange with the Village Clerk in March 2017 confirmed that the votes should have been added to Evan McMullin’s total. A check of official results on the state’s website on May 28, 2017 confirmed that the error had not been corrected—and likely will not be, because the recount results have been certified final and are no longer subject to correction.

UPDATE, June 20, 2017

At today’s meeting of the Wisconsin Election Commission, staff presented a report on the 47 voting-machine audits–something different than recounts–that were performed in accordance with s.7.08(6), Wis. Stats. following the November election. My detailed description of how these audits work is here.

Instructions for the audit (page 6 of the memo) seem to indicate the audit standard is “not one vote must be miscounted.” However, the memo is not specific about the number of votes in any of the audits, which gives us a sign that the officials performing the audits and reporting the results were applying a less precise standard. 

One of the villages randomly selected for audit, the Village of Hortonville in Outagamie County, could not reconcile the results of its audit hand-count with the Election-Night results they reported and certified. (Outagamie County uses the Optech Eagle, and did its recount by machine, so the electronic miscounts must have merely been replicated in the recount, not caught.)

However, the report does make it clear that after separate attempts by the municipality, county, and state to reconcile the different vote totals, “This exercise did not produce a result that allowed staff to understand how the Optech Eagle treated these ballots with confidence.”

Now, back to the point of this blog post: What is the implicit standard that our election officials applied in this case? ‘Not one vote’, or ‘miscounts are okay’?  A key statement is on page 11 of the memo:

“The analysis of the performance of the Optech Eagle identified a significant limitation of the equipment, but the Optech Eagle performed as expected during the 2016 Presidential Election.”

Read that again to make sure that phrase sinks in: “A significant limitation…as expected.”  That’s the standard for accuracy that is applied by our election officials to Wisconsin’s voting-machines.

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