November 2018 Hand-counted voting machine audits

Getting these audits done before election results are declared final is a big, good step forward for Wisconsin. But voters need to be present and observing to make sure any miscounts are resolved.

Click here for a list of municipalities where these hand counts will be performed, then call the clerk (the number is also at that link) to find out when and where the hand count will take place.

No special instructions are needed for observing, but we’ve written some anyway. Click here for more detailed instructions on how to observe a hand-counted audit, what to watch out for, and what to do if you see it.

Click here for an explanation of the benefits and limitations of these audits. Short summary: They are an improvement over past practices; they are better than nothing; and they won’t actually secure Wisconsin election results from undetected and uncorrected miscounts. We need to do better by 2020.

The Two Essential Elements of Election Security

(November 2018)  Wisconsin election security is getting better, but we are still sitting ducks for any corrupt insider at a voting-machine company. We can yammer about technological details for hours, and at the end of the day (Election Day, to be precise), only two things matter:

  1. Is there a voter-verified paper record of every ballot?
  2. Will local election officials use those paper ballots to check the vote-tabulators’ Election-Day accuracy before the election results are declared final?

The best layperson’s explanation of election security was published just this year, with the National Academy of Sciences’ September 2018 report, Securing the Vote: Protecting American Democracy.

The point is: Even if our elections use the most secure, most up-to-date technology–they don’t, and never will–technology has not yet developed  a computer that isn’t manufactured, programmed, and operated by humans. And humans are always going to make an occasional mistake. Some are always going to be dishonest. So when we use computers, we need to check the output to make sure it came out okay.

Wisconsin has always had paper ballots. “Voter-verified” means that the voters themselves have looked at their ballots and confirmed, to their own satisfaction, that the information on that paper is a true record of their votes. The vast majority of Wisconsin’s voters mark their own ballots with pen and ink, so for the most part, we’re good. In some parts of the state, voters are given “touchscreen” machines that print a ballot for the voter. Some of these machines are old and on their way out, such as the  ones that print the ballots on a paper tape that stays inside the machine, are dying out. Others such as ‘ballot-marking devices’, or BMDs, which print a separate ballot that is fed into a separate tabulating machine, are gaining popularity. For those machines, it’s a little harder to make the argument that every voter has verified the paper trail is accurate, but we can discuss that another time. Let’s just say that, for now, there’s a paper ballot for every vote cast in Wisconsin, and enough of them have been voter-verified that clerks could check the voting-machines’ accuracy if the voters insisted on it.

But checking accuracy is where Wisconsin falls down.

More than half the states now require at least some hand-counting to verify computer-tabulated vote totals before election results can be certified. Several of these are now–or soon will be–hand-counting enough ballots to establish statistical certainty that they’ve identified the right winners. (Picking the right winners is, of course, all that the clerks REALLY  need to do during their ‘canvass’, which is what they call the period of review between Election Night and their deadline for declaring results final.)

But not Wisconsin.* Our clerks have full and complete trust that our voting machines and their programmers would never identify the wrong winner. They check other things during their canvass, but not that the voting machines counted the votes correctly.

In Wisconsin, voters cannot get verification of accuracy unless there’s a recount. And with changes made to state law in 2017, we can pretty much forget about recounts. Only one person can demand a recount in any race (the second-place finisher), and then only if he or she lost by less than one percent of the votes. If the unaudited election results show a victory margin larger than one percent, no one can get a recount done–even if the candidate offers to pay for it in cash, up front.

So now you know: if you’re a corrupt insider at a voting-machine company, just make sure to give your candidate a victory margin of more than 1%, and you don’t need to worry about a recount detecting your fraud.

The three things Wisconsin voters most need to know now:

  1. Routine election audits, good enough to confirm the right winners and completed while results can still be correct, are an indispensable part of any election-security program. Maybe even the most important part, since that is the only security measure wholly in control of the local officials. There’s no disagreement anymore on that point: Federal election authorities and national experts are in complete agreement. Any local clerk who says otherwise is displaying ignorance or worse.
  2. The Wisconsin Elections Commission now officially agrees, too. This fall, the Commission voted unanimously to encourage county clerks to incorporate valid election audits in their canvass. On October 4, they sent the county clerks simple step-by-step instructions that any county could start to follow at any time.
  3. And finally, every Wisconsin voter needs to know “When will YOUR Wisconsin county election officials start to follow national and state advice? When will they begin to audit in a way that allows them to detect miscounts while they still have time to correct them?”  Call your county election officials today, and find out.

* In late September, the Wisconsin Elections Commission wisely voted to improve their requirements for certain voting-machine audits they have the power to order under current Wisconsin law. These audits are better than nothing, but they have two serious limitations that prevent them from being the outcome-verifying audits that could actually protect our election results.

First, they don’t include enough voting machines–only 5% of the machines statewide.

Second, the audits assess the voting machines’ performance as the machines were programmed. That is, if a vote-tabulating system was misprogrammed to delete one-fifth of the votes for one of the candidates, these audit would NOT count that as an error if the voting machine actually counted the votes as it was programmed to do. (Really; I’m not making that up.)

Election security is not complete without routine, transparent verification during the canvass after every election.

Our voting rights don’t end when the polls close.

Our right to cast a vote means nothing if our right to have that vote counted is ignored.

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In particular, check out these five ways any Wisconsin voter can promote secure elections. The first thing we need is for people of good will and civic dedication to get involved with local election administration to make sure current standards and requirements are being met.

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