WEC to voters: Voting machines use binary code, so you don’t need to be able to decipher your ballot.

Today the Wisconsin Elections Commission once again took up a voting-machine vendors’ request to market a new product here. Once again, the Commission confined voters to five-minute comments and then invited voting-machine vendors to sit down at the table with them to pitch their products.

Once again, the Commission discussed the voters’ concerns only for the purpose of asking the vendor to refute them.

And then the Commission once again approved a ballot-marking device (BMD) that records our votes as barcodes we cannot read.

The machine in question today (there are others, too) is called the ExpressVote. Designed primarily for voters with disabilities who cannot use a pen, BMDs allow voters to use a touchscreen to indicate their votes and then print a marked paper ballot. Increasingly, BMDs are being promoted to voters without disabilities, particularly early voters.

Good BMDs print ballots that are nearly indistinguishable from hand-marked paper ballots. Voters can easily verify that their votes were printed correctly. The ballots cast by voters with disabilities look just like everyone else’s. The tabulators read all ballots the same way.

Bad BMDs, like the ExpressVote, print ballots that look like large cash-register receipts. On these ballots, votes are recorded as barcodes. This prevents voters from verifying their votes were printed correctly. It violates voters’ privacy when a polling place has only one or two voters with disabilities. (More about barcoding BMDs here.)

But why?

You might ask (most people do) why anyone would build such a feature into a machine.

You might ask, but the Wisconsin Elections Commission doesn’t.

Commissioners never asked the vendor: “Why? Why are you offering us a machine with this weird feature, when we know you can manufacture machines that perform all the desirable functions and none of the dicey ones?”

Whatever the answer is, it must not make the barcoding BMDs look good. So the Commission doesn’t ask it.

The vendor’s defense attorney

At one point, Chair Dean Knudson sympathetically acknowledged that voters who use barcoding BMDs can independently verify their votes only if they bring a barcode reader to the polls. He wisely noted that’s too much to expect of voters.

But beyond that, the commissioners’ questions on the barcoding issue could all be paraphrased: “How can we refute the voters’ stupid concerns?”

“Motivated reasoning” is the chop-logic that appears when people pick a conclusion first and go looking for reasons to justify it afterwards. For example, commissioners and staff repeatedly reminded each other: “We saw no problems when the barcodes were tested/audited/recounted. Therefore, we conclude the system is safe.”

That’s a textbook case of motivated reasoning. People wearing their thinking caps know that hackers are not scared away because a system worked well during the manufacturer’s demo or the customer’s test.

People with unclouded vision know that computers with worrisome features do not earn magical immunity from future problems by working well on previous occasions.

People who are seeking to build voter confidence and to secure elections know it’s a bad idea to give every questionable voting system one freebie botched election before rejecting it.

Commissioner Mark Thomsen in particular took it upon himself to play defense attorney for the vendor. He acted insulted that voters had implied the barcoding BMDs are “hackable.” They are, but no more than any other computer. Thomsen knew the issue was not the barcoding machines’ hack-ability, but that barcodes remove voters’ ability to detect hacking.

Most bizarrely, Thomsen repeatedly reiterated one laughable argument made by the vendor. Because the tabulators read all votes as binary code, voters have no reason to object when the printer makes their votes indecipherable to humans.

Thomsen has more than enough intellect to understand “garbage in, garbage out.” He knows we need to be careful to feed computers only accurate information. He understands why voter-verified ballots are essential for both security and voter confidence.

But for some reason he pretended he didn’t.

Thomsen even went on to argue in favor of another type of BMD that WEC staff had wisely recommended rejecting. This machine combines a ballot-printer and a tabulator in one machine, creating a feature independent elections-technology experts ridicule as the “permission to cheat” feature. Fortunately, the other commissioners acted as a wise jury, so the notion of overriding the staff recommendation to reject that component went nowhere.

Voters shouldn’t give up.

The commissioners are neither stupid nor crooked, as far as I can tell. They do a fabulous job, for example, when they’re working on security for WisVote (the voter-registration system). WisVote, too, stores data as binary code, but I have no doubt the commissioners would emphatically reject any suggestion that they render each voter’s registration record unreadable to the voter. The commissioners don’t use motivated reasoning on the registration system.

It’s only when the questions involve the tabulation system that they become more interested in making excuses for security flaws than in fixing them. They suspend their common sense only when the voting-machine vendors sweet talk them. But whatever the reason, siding with the voting-machine vendors against the voters is something of a habit for them.

As voters who want to protect our own votes and our communities’ elections, we’ve got work to do. We need to show up and object every time the Commission considers idiotic equipment. I see too much common sense on that commission to believe they will keep these particular blinders on forever.

The other suggestion on the table is a lawsuit. Wisconsin law requires that voting systems “permit an elector to privately verify the votes selected by the elector before casting his or her ballot.” On barcoded ballots, the barcodes are the votes–they are the only marks on the ballot that are counted. And a good argument can be made that using a barcode reader that was provided or programmed by the same company that provided and programmed the BMD and the tabulator does not constitute verification. Therefore, if we can find a lawyer willing to defend election security and voters, we could make an argument that barcoding BMDs are already illegal in Wisconsin. If the Commission wants to build voter confidence and enhance security, it will adopt this line of reasoning even without a lawsuit.

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