Voters ask for security. The Wisconsin Elections Commission gives only reassurances.

Summary: The WEC should be pressuring manufacturers to improve insecure election equipment, not pressuring voters to accept it. But they are doing the opposite. 7-minute read.

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June 27, 2019 – Imagine two friends walking down the street when a masher starts to hit on the woman—even tries to get her into his car.   

The woman’s friend doesn’t need to throw any punches. But he should at least say: “Hey, buddy. You’re out of line. Move on.”

The last thing you expect him to do is to tell the woman: “You need to trust. This guy’s offer sounds legit. He’s got a nice car. Go ahead; get in.”

Voting-machine companies have been acting like the masher. They are pressuring voters to take risks with elections equipment that has built-in security flaws:

  • Some models of ballot-marking devices (BMDs) print ballots with the votes recorded in barcodes, rather than in marked ovals beside candidates’ names. BMDs are necessary for people who cannot mark their own ballots. The problem is that barcoded votes make it impossible for voters to verify which candidates will get their votes. Even a voter carrying a barcode reader wouldn’t be able to tell whether 02060101 was the right candidate. The barcoded ballots also print the candidate’s names as text, but the computers count only the barcoded votes.  The Commission has approved two barcoding BMDs:  the ES&S ExpressVote and the Dominion ICE.
  • Hybrid voting machines combine a ballot-marking device and tabulator in one machine, which sounds okay until you know that, after a voter has inspected the ballot and inserted it back into the machine for counting, the machine passes the ballot back under the printer head. As a result, the machines can be mis-programmed to print additional votes on the ballots or to make marks that invalidate the ones the voters made.  Like barcoding, that makes voter verification impossible. Dominion ICE is the only hybrid voting machine currently in use in Wisconsin.

The Wisconsin Elections Commission has been telling voters to go ahead and get into the car. 

Manufacturer ES&S recently asked the Commission for permission to sell an updated voting system that includes both a safe BMD (the Automark) and a barcoding BMD (the ExpressVote).  The Commission took the matter up at their June meeting.

In advance of that meeting, dozens of voters contacted the Commission, asking them to deny approval to the barcoding machine. After reading the voters’ emails, the commissioners saw a problem, but it wasn’t the security flaw. The problem they saw was voter resistance to the security flaw.  (With one exception–see the footnote)

When they met on June 11, neither staff nor commissioners were coy about the purpose of the meeting. Administrator Meagan Wolfe introduced the staff who “conducted the campaign to approve the voting equipment.” (At 11:30 in this video recording of the meeting.)

Commissioner Mark Thomsen was equally clear about what he wanted from the meeting:  “I’d like to be reassured about any security issues and that the public knows that we don’t have a problem there.”  (38:38 in that video)

Were these mere figures of speech? Did Wolfe and Thomsen instead mean to say that they wanted to conduct a rigorous assessment to reduce or eliminate the risks?

Nope. Watch that video and you will see staff, commissioners, and ES&S sales representatives working together with shared purpose: To convince each other and the voters that all is well.

Had commissioners come to the meeting ready to grapple with and resolve the security issues, they would quickly have posed the obvious first question, given the controversy: Why are barcodes used at all? Particularly when it is demonstrably possible to manufacture a machine with all the desirable features of the ExpressVote but without the barcodes? What benefit do the barcodes provide, to whom, that justifies degrading voter verifiability like this?

But no one asked that. So no one answered.

That wasn’t the only important question unasked and unanswered. Tony Bridges, the Commission’s Election Security lead, reassured the commissioners that the votes recorded as text, rather than the barcodes, will be counted in recounts and audits.  (Starts at 48:12 in the video linked above.)

The Commissioners know — even if Bridges does not — that in 2016 the Commission testified in court that statutes give counties, not the Commission, authority to decide whether to recount by hand or by machine. The judge agreed. So Commissioners know they cannot require the recount method Bridges described. Yet no one corrected him. The stated purpose of the meeting was to increase confidence in election security — and Bridges’ misstatement did that.

Several commissioners are lawyers. If they had been engaged in assessing risks rather than excusing them, they surely would have also noticed that no Wisconsin statute anticipates that votes will be recorded twice on the same ballot. That creates a rat’s nest of legal questions around barcoded ballots: Which is the ‘real’ vote?

What does it say about the validity of results in un-recounted races when the Commission insists, as Bridges suggests, that only those votes recorded as text are reliable enough to decide a recount? One of the candidates in the next contested recount might suspect he or she got more votes from the barcoded ballots. When that candidate challenges the hand-counting counties, what legal argument will the Commission suggest to those clerks to defend Bridges’ method against pressure to recount by machine?

Bridges’ proposal is just as problematic for voting-machine audits. For years, the Commission has repeatedly asserted that this state’s audit law, s.7.08(6), Wis. Stats., requires auditors to read the votes the way the machines are designed to read them. Reading only the text votes from barcoded ballots cannot fulfill that requirement, because the tabulators don’t use those votes. So Bridges’ proposed audits do not qualify as s.7.08(6) audits. Yet those are the only audits the Commission has authority to order.

None of that came out in the meeting, however, because the commissioners were wholly fixated on defending the barcoding BMD. Having built up the illusion that officials will routinely check the barcodes for accuracy, Bridges’ testimony was on script and accepted.

The manufacturer’s claims were also accepted without question. None, however, stand up to even simple critical examination.

  1. The manufacturer’s first argument is: “The voters can verify the votes that are printed as text.”
    Commissioners working to protect voters would have said: “We cannot consider something that’s never counted to be a ‘vote.’ So we don’t see the value in verifying the text. It’s the votes that will be counted that must be verifiable to comply with the law that says that voters must be able to privately verify the votes selected.”  
    No commissioner said that.
  2. The next argument is: “Audits and recounts will notice if the barcoded votes differ from the printed text.”
    Commissioners working to protect voters would have told the manufacturer that is irrelevant in Wisconsin. Here, very few races are protected by recounts because recounts are allowed only when preliminary results are too close to have been hacked (Manipulated results will surely have a victory margin larger than 0.25%.) Audits protect even fewer races because the Commission has no authority to correct election results even if an audit detects a problem in the sampled machines.  
    No commissioner brought that up.
  3. Manufacturers offer a third defense when they are forced to admit the votes printed as text are merely decorative. They have built a feature into the BMDs that allows a curious voter to reinsert the ballot into the machine that printed it, which will read the barcode and display the votes on a monitor.
    Commissioners working to protect voters would have pointed out that’s not verification. It requires a voter to trust the machine once to print the correct votes, and then trust it again to read back the correct votes. If a barcoding BMD is programmed to print the wrong votes in the barcode, it will also be programmed to read the right votes back to the voter.
    No commissioner pointed that out.
  4. For their final line of defense, ES&S falls back on obfuscation. The manufacturer explains that the tabulator uses the same set of codes to interpret both marked ovals and barcodes. For example, the code assigned to a candidate whose oval is located in the second row of the sixth column on the first side of the first page of a printed ballot would be 02060101. The barcoded votes for that candidate contain a reference to that same spot—02060101.
    Commissioners working to protect voters would have scoffed and said, “If the voter hasn’t verified it, we don’t care how the tabulator reads it. Stop yammering about irrelevant technicalities and bring us a BMD with the good features of the ExpressVote and voter-verifiable ballots.”
    None of the commissioners scoffed.

Staff contributed additional weak arguments to help make ES&S’s case: 

  • Staff pointed out that they found no problems with the barcodes when they tested the systems. They did not mention that the machines used by Election-Day voters will be at risk of mis-programming, while the machines provided by ES&S for testing were not.
  • Staff said that previous recounts and audits found no problems with incorrect barcodes in past elections. They did not explain how that protects future elections.
  • Staff told commissioners that local officials often test the machines before each election. They did not explain that pre-election tests provide no security against malicious code, which would be designed never to reveal itself before Election Day.

No surprise: After this discussion, the Commission voted unanimously to approve the machine, and instructed its staff to reassure the voters.  A few days later, every voter who had urged caution got an email from Public Information Officer Reid Magney.  Following the commissioners’ instruction to convince voters that barcoded votes are “a perceived problem, not a real one,” (43:32), Magney uncritically repeated the manufacturer’s claims and even used the opportunity to distribute an ES&S marketing brochure.

So here’s a direct plea to the Wisconsin Elections Commission and their staff: Stop seeing it as your job to make the companies’ case to the voters. Start making the voters’ case to the companies.

When you hear manufacturers’ claims, make skepticism your default attitude. When you hear voters’ concerns, default to curiosity.

When a law or regulation can be interpreted either way, go with the common-sense interpretation that favors the voters’ interests. Don’t devote extra effort to wresting out an interpretation that favors the voting machine companies’ interests. (I’m looking at you, Staff Attorney Michael Haas—1:27:00.)   

Demand security from them, not trust from us.

In short, WEC, come over to the voters’ side where you belong.

Footnote: Chair Dean Knudson’s line of questioning, which starts around 50:00, was responsive to concerns about pre-election testing. However, to be fair, that line of questioning challenged only election officials to reduce the risks of barcodes. He did not challenge the manufacturer to eliminate them.

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Note to the media:  Voters could use your help in getting the WEC to work on tabulation security, rather than to continue working on reassurance.
The security problems with barcoding and hybrid BMDs are being taken very seriously outside Wisconsin. Federal election-security legislation has been introduced that would prohibit their use. Senator Tammy Baldwin is co-sponsoring the Senate bill, SB 1472; Representative Mark Pocan voted for the House bill, HR 2722.
If you ever ask WEC about election security, be prepared to receive a list of measures they have taken to protect the voter registration system, WisVote. The list will not explain–unless you press–that those measures don’t protect the tabulation system.
The WEC might also list some things they have done related to securing the tabulation system. Before you file your story, notice which are guidance rather than binding requirements, and notice that none resolve the risks created when voters cannot verify their ballots, such as in barcoding BMDs or a hybrid voting system. 

2 Replies to “Voters ask for security. The Wisconsin Elections Commission gives only reassurances.”

  1. When I was a newspaper reporter, we would create boilerplate paragraphs for recurring stories and issues, which we’d written earlier but didn’t want to keep rewriting. We assigned these little boilerplate paragraphs to alt-keys on our newsroom editing terminals, so a reporter — even a less experienced staffer filling in on an unfamiliar beat — could quickly insert them without having to spend time researching and crafting anew. For example, we every so often found ourselves writing stories about federal milk-price supports, a big issue in Wisconsin. So we boilerplated a description of what those supports were. We only had to update the description occasionally. And editors made sure the description was up to date.

    Institutional miasma often includes similar boilerplate, but it’s not just saved in specialized text on a word processor. Theirs are too often mental, autopilot understandings. Staff and managers and commissioners alike want to get through their tasks with as little energy as possible, because they are busy, often under-resourced people. Little or no thinking required beyond the merely procedural. Or so it seems.

    This attitude needn’t be cynical. The institution’s belief it is being a careful steward of the public interest naturally seems to conform (in this case) to the use of voting machines that are represented by known entities as more efficient and secure. When an outsider — or even an isolated insider — threatens those default beliefs, the institution goes into defense mode. No, no, they’ve thought through all this, except that effort is too often done within a frame that doesn’t take new information into account.

    One of those limiting frames is that institutions tend to be captured by their vendors and those whom they regulate. Unfortunately, the Election Commission (along with its local equivalents) is an oddity, in that it hasn’t yet been captured by the voters. The political component of the commission’s creation and furtherance probably is to blame for that. Voting-machine companies are special interests, and they do contribute to the campaigns of lawmakers who oversee the commission.

    Fortunately, observers and critics of such institutions can use the very same boilerplate technique I used as a reporter to make their comments more timely and efficient. Describe the problem and the real solutions in a series of short statements you can make into electronic boilerplate using F-keys or alt-keys. Paste these descriptive phrases into all new relevant communications. That will speed up your reaction time. Also, the phrases repeated verbatim eventually will ingrain themselves in the minds of reporters, policymakers and others who read them. Message repetition wins.

    Just be sure not to make the commission’s mistake of too seldom taking its own temperature. Review your boilerplate from time to time, adjusting it to changing conditions in the real world. Efficiency is good. Unexamined and thoughtlessly used rote is not. Carefully considered and managed rote is however a great tool.

  2. “Dominion ICE”? Really? Such etymological tomfoolery is intended to redound to the purported advantage of the tattered remains of our putative democracy? I think not. This name is an out-in-the-open display of fascistic intent if there ever was one, and with the apparent expectation that it will be treated as the norm from here on out. I cannot trust the safeguarding of what’s left of our democracy to a manufacturer in charge of the vote count who so brazenly counts us all as idiots.

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