Last week, a reporter and I were discussing election hacks that might happen in Wisconsin. He has done his research and understands the threats. He posed an interesting question: What if hackers wanted only to create chaos and distrust, rather than change the outcome of a statewide election?
Hmmm…what would happen? I thought through the likely chain of events and realized it is not possible to create distrust by hacking a Wisconsin election — but not for the reason you would hope.
If this was a movie, it would be a black comedy with a twist ending. The big gasp would come when the election thieves (along with the viewers) realize the fatal flaw in the plan …
Scene 1 opens in the messy office of computer hackers. They are working for a foreign government that has its eyes on the US presidential election. They are celebrating because they just succeeded in compromising a small voting-machine service company in eastern Minnesota.
Scene 2 takes place in the Intelligence Headquarters of the foreign capital. The hackers are reporting their progress to the chief.
“The good news,” they say, “is that we know how to make that company provide compromised software to all its customers. Local election clerks will never know. They never inspect the software and their cute pre-election tests cannot detect hacks that activate only on Election Day.”
“The bad news is that the company controls only some of Wisconsin’s voting machines. They don’t have enough votes to deliver a statewide race.”
The hackers are surprised when the intelligence chief doesn’t care.
“No worries,” he says. “If we show we can hack the machines, we will destroy trust in the process. Whoever wins won’t have legitimacy.”
“Go for it,” he says. “Pick whoever you want to win. Just as long as it’s not the candidate the voters want.”
Scene 3 is back in the hackers’ office. The hackers are gleefully developing their plan.
As voters cast their ballots, the hackers will let the voting machines count their votes correctly.
But on Election Night, when the poll workers push “tabulate,” the computer will quickly flip the vote totals of the top two candidates in each primary. The voting machines will give the biggest vote total to the second-place finisher, and make the voters’ choice come in second. Not a single polling place in the entire area will report accurate results.
Scene 4 takes place on Election Night, April 7, 2020. Poll workers are gathered around a voting machine in a small city in western Wisconsin. The chief inspector pushes a button on the back as others eagerly watch the poll tape emerge. Expressions of surprise.
Cut to the Associated Press Election-Night newsroom. Much excitement. An editor shouts to a reporter: “Go figure out what’s up with Wisconsin’s rural voters! That’s not what anyone predicted they would do, in either party primary.”
Scene 5 consists of a montage of cable-news soundbites on Wednesday, April 8, 2020.
Questions abound: “What’s going on in rural Wisconsin? Why did the voters in both major-party primaries confound expectations?”
Guesses tumble out: Maybe voters lied to the pollsters about who they would vote for, or whether they would vote at all. Maybe hostile cross-over voting went both ways…maybe the leading candidates were too confident…
In Scene 6, viewers get the shocking revelation.
It’s now two weeks after the primary. A county clerk and two senior citizens sit in a drab conference room in a small county courthouse. They are finishing up the official canvass. The clerk says: “I printed out the certification statement. This is one election we won’t forget.”
They pass the paper around. Each one signs it. The hacked results are now official.
One of the board of canvass members remarks: “I’ve been doing elections work for 35 years, and voters still surprise me. Well, let’s go for a beer.”
Cut to the Intelligence HQ in the foreign capital. The Chief is furious; the hackers stare at their shoes.
The Chief slams his fist on the table: “You idiots chose a state where no one would even notice an election hack!!! Why didn’t you do this in Colorado or New Mexico?
“Are you nuts? How did you expect your hack to be noticed when Wisconsin’s paper ballots are sealed up on Election Night and never seen again?
“Didn’t you know that Wisconsin election officials never audit the primary elections?
“Didn’t you bother to notice that Wisconsin never recounts unless results are virtually tied?
“You bozos! Get out of my sight!”
The hackers leave. The chief smiles and picks up the phone.
“Mr. Secretary, good news. We just confirmed the people in Wisconsin trust whatever their computers tell them. No one will notice — not officials, not reporters, no one. Senate, Governor, President, whatever you want. ”
He hangs up the phone and calls his assistant in. “Contact the team who has compromised that big company, ES&S. Tell them to add Wisconsin to the list for November.”
* * *
Wisconsin’s local election officials do not stand a chance against sophisticated international cybercriminals. Too much is outside their control. Too many vulnerabilities, known and unknown, threaten the tabulators. Securing Election-Night results is a wishful fantasy.
But Election-Night results are preliminary and unofficial. Final results are the ones that matter and that could be secured — relatively easily, too. County clerks could use the paper ballots and their administrative authority to order hand counts. Simple audits could verify the winners while the clerks still have time to correct any miscounts.
The Wisconsin Elections Commission orders scattered audits of individual voting machines after November elections. That’s grounds for some hope. But even with improvements made in 2018, if these audits ever detect a miscount, they are as likely to cause chaos as to prevent it. They are not rigorous enough to verify the correct winners and are not binding on final results. Officials have no agreed-upon procedures for what they will do if auditors detect that the Election-Night results were miscounted.
Contact your Wisconsin County Clerk. Tell him or her to develop written canvass procedures — NOW — to verify the correct winners in the 2020 elections before they certify the final results.
Tuesday, July 16th at 10:30 AM – Assembly Parlor, State Capitol
On May 8th, Wisconsin Republican legislative leaders, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) and State Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau), and their GOP minions on the Legislative Joint Finance Committee (JFC) stripped the redistricting reform provision proposal that Gov. Tony Evers had inserted in his 2019-2021 state budget proposal. That measure is based on Iowa’s redistricting process which was developed and enacted into law in Iowa by Republican Governor Robert Ray and a Republican-controlled Legislature (both chambers) in 1980.
Now, out of the state budget, the “Iowa Model” redistricting measure has been introduced, with bi-partisan support, in the Wisconsin Legislature as stand-alone legislation and on Tuesday, July 16th, it will be formally “rolled out” by the lead sponsors at 10:30 AM in the Assembly Parlor of the State Capitol. CC/WI Chair, former State Senator Tim Cullen will speak in favor of the measure on behalf of CC/WI.
In the State Senate, the lead sponsor is Sen. Dave Hansen (D–Green Bay), who has introduced Senate Bill 288. In the Assembly, the lead sponsor is Rep. Robyn Vining (D-Waukesha), who has introduced an identical measure, Assembly Bill 303. They will speak at the press conference with Cullen and other reformers.
You can attend the press conference, too, if you are available and would like to join us. It is vitally important for you to do your part to help make ending partisan gerrymandering a reality in Wisconsin before 2021, when the next redistricting process will occur, following the 2020 Census.
This week, contact both your state senator and your state representative and demand that they co-sponsor and support Senate Bill 288 and/or Assembly Bill 303. If you are not sure who your state senator and/or state representative is, go here.
Some legislators and their staff may tell you the U.S. Supreme Court has now said that their current, partisan gerrymandering system is the only way the redistricting process can occur.
That is a bald-faced lie! They absolutely could and should adopt the fair, non-partisan legislation (SB 288/AB 303), now ready for a public hearing and consideration by the full Wisconsin Legislature tomorrow, if they put the public interest ahead of their narrow, partisan interest.
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.
* * *
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
* * *
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.
The year was 1977, and my friend Gail was in the market for a cheap used car. One of the guys in our apartment building, Chuck, wanted to sell his Pinto.
“No, Gail, no,” I told her. “People are saying the Pinto’s
gas tank can explode in even low-speed rear-end crashes. There’s talk of recall and lawsuits. If you
buy this car, you won’t be able to resell it.”
Gail believed me but dismissed the risk. “Ford wouldn’t be selling the car if it was a big problem,” she said. “And besides, Chuck said the car has seat belts.” She thought for a second and couldn’t come up with any more ways to dismiss or minimize the risk. “I have faith it’ll be okay.”
My roommate backed me up. “Gail, I saw a Datsun B210 for sale on Johnson Street. The B210 does everything the Pinto does, without the risk. Forget about the Pinto.”
The more we tried to reason with her, the sillier her arguments became. Chuck had done a good job cleaning his trash out of the car. She could probably minimize the risk by never filling the gas tank more than a quarter full.
She had turned off her brain when it came to hearing anything negative about the Pinto. Chuck seemed to have her under some sort of spell.
Gail came to mind during the Wisconsin Elections Commission meeting last week. The Commissioners were meeting to decide whether to approve an updated version of a risky piece of elections equipment, called the ExpressVote. They were listening to the manufacturer, ES&S, the way Gail had been listening to Chuck, treating words of warning like flies to be swatted away.
The ExpressVote is a type of ballot-marking device (BMD),
which voters use to mark their ballots when they cannot, or do not want to, use
a pen. BMDs only print ballots; they
don’t count votes. But they can be misprogrammed to print a ballot that
contains different votes than the ones the voter intended.
Safe BMDs manage this risk by printing ballots that look just like regular hand-marked paper ballots. Each vote is recorded once–as a marked oval beside some candidate’s name. The voter can see it’s next to the correct name. The tabulator looks at that same marked oval, verified by the voter, when it counts the vote.
The Pintos among the BMDs—that is, the unsafe ones—print barcoded ballots. Barcoded ballots record each vote twice—once in text, and once in barcode. Voters can verify only the votes printed in the text. The tabulator can count only the votes inside the barcode. If the BMD is programmed to print one vote in text and a different vote in the barcode, the voter cannot notice. The ExpressVote is one of these machines.
In my dreams, whenever a state election authority meets to approve voting equipment, they would invite the manufacturer, of course. But because the commission would want all the relevant, reliable information they could get, they would also invite other trusted people to sit at the table to answer any questions that might arise and to comment on the manufacturers’ claims.
The mission of the meeting would be to determine what is best for Wisconsin elections. The commissioners’ conduct—particularly their follow-up questions—would demonstrate that they wanted nothing less than the full, unbiased facts.
But the June WEC meeting was not that.
As usual, uninvited members of the public could speak for five minutes at the beginning of the meeting. As usual, I took that opportunity. I explained the risks. I warned of the gathering storm of litigation and legislation. I told them barcoding brings no benefit to balance the risk. I told them they have other options. I asked them to protect our votes and turn away from this pointless risk. The commissioners listened politely but asked no questions.
Then for the next two hours, I and everyone else in the room was required to listen silently as the salespeople gave their pitch without time limit and demonstrated their equipment. The Commissioners had arranged for no provision to receive correction or rebuttal from an independent source if ES&S misled the Commission in any way. If the salespeople omitted any important information the commissioners might need to know, the meeting presented no opportunity for anyone to provide it.
The one exception was when Commission Chair Dean Knudson led
a responsible line of questioning about whether the municipal clerks test the
BMDs before each election. To its credit, the commissioners voted to promote that
testing before future elections.
But other than that, everyone’s conduct indicated that ES&S, the commissioners, and staff came to the meeting with one shared goal: to minimize or refute concerns about the security of the ExpressVote and approve it for sale in Wisconsin.
One example: The issue of voter verification. ES&S designed a feature into the ExpressVote that allows a voter to reinsert the barcoded ballot back into the machine, and have the BMD display the votes on a computer monitor for a second time. ES&S wants everyone to believe that this feature provides voter verification.
But of course it doesn’t. Everyone in the room—commissioners, staff, and company reps included—was intelligent enough to know that if a hacker ever programs a BMD to print the wrong votes in the barcode, the hacker will also program it to display only the right votes to the voter.
But the commissioners asked no skeptical or challenging follow-up questions. None even bothered to wonder out loud what good barcoding does anyway. (Answer: Nothing. It’s all risk, no reward.) A few even repeated ES&S’s claim of verifiability back to them, like my friend Gail, as if repetition of a silly argument could make it convincing.
Another example: ES&S’s pitch regarding the safety of barcodes. Barcoded ballots are safe, the sales pitch went, because:
The programmer assigns each candidate a unique numeric code, based on that candidate’s location on the ballot. For example, the candidate whose oval is located in the 2nd column, 15th row, first side, first page of the ballot will be Candidate 021511.
When the tabulator looks at a hand-marked ballot and sees a marked oval at that position, the tabulator will count a vote for Candidate 021511.
When that same tabulator looks at a barcoded ballot and sees a barcode that translates into “021511,” the tabulator will count a vote for Candidate 021511.
In summary (ES&S says), hand-marked and bar-coded ballots are equally secure because the tabulator uses the same numeric code, whether it is reading from a marked oval or from a barcode.
This information—presented in a glossy, illustrated, full-color brochure—answered a question no one had asked and no one cares about. The problem isn’t that the tabulator might use different numeric codes when interpreting ovals and barcodes.
The problem is that when counting a barcoded ballot, the tabulator looks at information no voter has verified, unlike when the voter and tabulator both look at the same marked oval.
The commissioners gave no sign they noticed the time-honored marketing ploy: Distract the customer by talking about something else and pretend you have addressed the concern. Gullible and eager-to-say-yes customers smile and nod.
I don’t know what accounts for this smile-and-nod process for approving voting equipment. I do know the commissioners are capable of being tigers when it comes to security — of a different system. I’ve witnessed the commissioners asking serious, challenging follow-up questions—really engaging their critical faculties—when working through security issues involving WisVote, our state’s voter-registration system.
During the weekend before their Tuesday meeting, participants in our group (Wisconsin Election Integrity) had emailed the commissioners warning them of the barcoding BMDs’ security issues and asking them to stop certifying them. Had we been raising security concerns about something in the WisVote system, I’m confident the commissioners’ response would have been to tell their staff to resolve the security issue.
But we were raising an alarm about the tabulation-system security. So the commissioners’ response was to tell their staff to reassure voters there is no problem.
I cannot imagine any commissioner shrugging and telling me,
“Well, it does take a leap of faith,” to end a conversation about voters’
ability to verify their registration records, as one did to end a conversation
with me about voters’ inability to verify barcoded votes during a break in
“Leap of faith” doesn’t cut it with any of them when it comes to voter-registration records. I cannot understand why they vote as if they see that as an acceptable standard for the tabulation system.
If something requires a leap of faith, it’s probably not a good idea.
Summary: Dominion Voting, one of the nation’s largest voting-machine vendors, uses the internet to deliver voting-machine software to local election officials before each election. Local election clerks can be so naive that they will proudly say “The voting machines are never connected to the internet,” and genuinely believe that protects the software–even though they themselves downloaded the machines’ software from Dominion’s website onto a county computer, from which they made copies for each voting machine.
* * *
Before we talk about Dominion in particular, a reminder about the basics: In Wisconsin (like everywhere else), every voting machine system (like every other computer) is hackable. Even if never connected to the internet, every working computer contains software copied from some other computer. And hacks don’t need to come in over the internet: Every computer is programmed by normally fallible humans who occasionally have motive, means, and opportunity for fraud.
That’s why every responsible manager, including every elections official, must routinely audit their computers’ output (that is, our election results).
Now, about Dominion Voting Systems and their Imagecast Evolution (ICE) machine.
Voters and reporters in the 12 Wisconsin counties* using ICE voting machines believe that their voting machines are never connected to the internet. What they probably don’t know is that (except for Fond du Lac County), their vote-counting software was downloaded from the internet anyway.
The software in our voting machines has to be updated for every election, because each election has a unique set of races and candidates. No election official in Wisconsin has the ability or authority to write these programs by themselves. They either send the information to an out-of-state vendor who will write the programs for them, or they use an app provided by their voting-machine vendor to compile the vote-counting instructions themselves.
Typically, when an outside vendor writes the software for voting machines, they will deliver it to the local election officials on portable media (something like a USB drive, an SD card, or a “PROM” pack) via courier or FedEx.
But Dominion Voting, a corporation headquartered in Toronto and Denver, emails the county clerk when the software is complete, and the county clerk then downloads the software from the Dominion website.
I first discovered this last year, when I was contacting the county clerks in an attempt to inventory their current security practices; get a read on their level of understanding of the risks; and assess their receptivity to the idea of protective election audits.
Here’s how it works: In Wisconsin, it’s the municipalities that own and operate the voting machines, but because the county clerk has overall responsibility for designing and printing the ballots and reporting the election results, municipalities in most counties cooperate to buy the same voting-machine system. They then rely on the county clerk to handle the machine preparation before each election.
The first four Dominion-ICE-using county clerks I interviewed were happy and proud to explain to me their pre-election procedures. When they get the email from Dominion before every election, they download the tabulation software to a county computer from the Dominion website; save it onto an SD card; copy it onto the county elections-management computer (which is never connected to the internet!), and from there copy it onto portable media to give to the municipal clerks to load into the individual voting machines.
As I spoke with them, I was trying hard to stay completely in a fact-gathering mode, to understand their point of view without influencing it. So I was trying hard to avoid asking follow-up questions like “Are you JOKING?!?!?).
But I do not have a poker face, and one clerk picked up on my discomfort. She patiently explained to me that it was safe to send voting-machine software over the internet because the Dominion website was secure and wouldn’t let her get to the software without a password. And because she downloads the software to a different computer–not the central county elections-management computer or any individual voting machine–she assured me that the local elections equipment stays “air-gapped” and secure.
I didn’t ask, but I imagined her thinking that any malicious code can be erased by waving the SD card through the air.
Yes, that is the level of IT sophistication typical of local election officials.
The fifth ICE user I spoke with was the atypical Lisa Freiberg, Fond du Lac County Clerk. Whew.
Freiberg has enough IT sophistication and backbone that, when Dominion suggested to her that she rely on them to write the program updates and download the software via internet, she refused. Instead, she obtained from Dominion software that she maintains on the county elections-management computer. She uses that software before each election to design the ballots and write the instructions the voting machines will use to count the votes. When I interviewed her in July 2018, she believed she was the only ICE user in the state who refuses delivery of the voting-machine software via the internet.
ICE is not the only voting system that Dominion offers or supports, and I don’t know if the company sends any other system’s software out over the internet. But even without being an IT professional, I can see some of the opportunities this practice might offer to those who would like to manipulate our elections.
When even the New York Times cannot protect its email from hackers, we cannot expect the deputy clerk in a rural Wisconsin county to know not to open an email containing malicious code that will allow hackers to intercept the next download from Dominion. Once they’ve got the rural county’s ICE software, they can use that knowledge to interfere with the next election in any other county that uses Dominion software.
This one problem could easily be fixed, as Freiberg demonstrated. Dominion ICE users could simply refuse to download software over the internet, and work with their vendor to find a different way.
Less easily fixed is Dominion’s way of doing business. Why did Freiberg even have to ask for an alternate method of obtaining the software? Does Dominion itself understand the risks to election security and voter confidence?
And it’s not just this one slip-up. Independent observers and experts have expressed serious concerns about the design of the system. Other serious concerns are:
The ICE system is designed in a way that would allow someone to program it to print additional votes on a ballot afterthe voter has cast it. This feature renders elections conducted on these machines unauditable, because the ballots were not secured from alteration after leaving the voters’ hands.
The ICE system incorporates a feature known to security advocates as “permission to cheat.” A voter who uses the touchscreen to mark his or her votes can choose to have the machine count the votes and drop the printed ballot into the bin without the voter’s review–essentially giving the computer programmers permission to cheat. Security advocates (and common sense) insist that voters MUST verify the integrity of the printed ballot if election results are to be trustworthy.
Arguably more than any other voting system, the Dominion ICE is the target of voter concern, even outrage. The most direct, immediate solution is for candidates and voters to demand that no more counties buy the ICE system, and to demand that their election officials who already use it follow the Fond du Lac county clerk’s example and refuse to download software over the internet.
Beyond that, we need to take action to make Dominion take security seriously or to prohibit use of their products. The ICE system could be decertified at either the state or federal level, and federal legislation could prohibit the use of voting systems capable of changing voters’ ballots after they have been cast.
Paper ballots can be manually counted in different ways–sort by candidate and then count the ballots; stack the ballots into groups of 20 and 100 and then have counters mark tally sheets as they go through the stack one-by-one; and more.
Affordable technology–a simple digital camera hooked up to a projector–can beat all these methods on each of the four attributes of a good manual-counting method.
1. Ballot security.
Ballots must not be altered by the manual count. Sorting and stacking methods require the ballots to be handled several times, by several people, and moved around tables. When ballots are projected, only one person needs to handle the ballots, only once, and can keep them on one table, in full view.
In a manual count, accuracy is established with redundant counts—two or more people must agree on each vote, reconciling any disagreement. When counters make errors in sort-and-stack or tally-sheet methods, finding and reviewing the problem ballot can take a lot of time and ballot-handling. With projected ballots, everyone sees the same vote at the same time, so ambiguous votes can be reconciled when they are first encountered.
Faster methods of manual counting help to restrain costs, because labor is the biggest cost. Quicker counting also makes the task more pleasant for both counters and observers. Projected-ballot manual counts have accurately counted votes in one race at a rate of 100 ballots every four minutes, including time to stop to compare paired counters’ totals and resolve any differences. Depending on ballot design, two races could go just as fast.
The value of a manual count depends upon how much trust it produces in candidates and voters. In traditional manual-count methods, observers cannot see ballots well enough to verify for themselves that the votes are being counted accurately and honestly. When the ballots are projected, observers see exactly what the official counters see. In addition, because projected-ballot counts require no ballot-handling by the counters, observers can be drafted on the spot as official counters–powerfully counteracting any distrust.
A tally sheet completed in full view of all counters and observers serves as a record of the manual count.
Quick summary: A recount in this week’s Supreme Court race would be a good idea for everyone involved. Verifying accuracy is a necessity if we want to protect our right to self-government from errors, glitches, and fraud. Even the seeming winner, Brian Hagedorn, would be better off if a recount removes the shadow of doubt from his legitimacy as winner. But because our legislature, egged on by our county clerks, tightened the recount law so extremely, it’s unlikely we’ll get one.
* * *
April 5, 2019 – A statewide election decided by only 6,000 votes is frustrating for everyone. Accurate or not, it indicates no clear will of the people. Chances are last week’s Supreme Court race was determined by random events. Who got tied up at work and didn’t get to the polls? Who neglected to get a valid witness signature on their early ballot?
And of course, such a close result raises fears of manipulation.
I’ve been asked about what I think happened.
First, I can say with certainty that the vote totals are incorrect. Statewide results always are, not just on Election Night but even after the county clerks have certified them. Every recount always finds miscounts.
Few people know that the 2016 recount found at least 17,681 mis-tabulated votes, or 0.58% of the total, because news media highlighted only the change in the victory margin. That’s 1 miscounted vote for every 170 cast. In 2016, the errors were random—affecting all candidates—so correcting them did not change the outcome.
Why so many miscounted votes? Lots of reasons, caused by both man and machine. Our elections are administered by a temporary workforce, without serious IT expertise. Even the county clerks don’t work full time on elections. Most workers are only lightly trained and supervised; get no more than four days’ on-the-job experience every year; and work under enormous time pressure. Only in recounts do they examine their work to find out how well they did. They would have to be superhuman not to make lots of mistakes.
But back to this specific race. Were the miscounts bad enough to have identified the wrong winner? And were they random?
I see no obvious sign of hacked voting machines. When someone manipulates Wisconsin’s election computers to alter the outcome in a statewide race, they are most likely to mis-program the software for one or two of the big counties, and they will surely put the statewide result outside the recount margin.
But the unexpected results in this Supreme Court race came from northern Wisconsin, and the statewide result is so close that Lisa Neubauer can—if she can raise huge cash quickly—get a recount. If that was computer hacking, it took impressive effort (accessing several small counties’ systems) while also being incredibly clumsy (creating results that are subject to recount.)
If a mis-tabulation (either accidental or deliberate) flipped the outcome in this Supreme Court race, my nominee for the most likely culprit is mishandled early, absentee, and mail-in ballots.
The 2016 recount found widespread errors with absentee ballots, mostly officials rejecting envelopes they should have accepted and vice-versa. But there were other mistakes, too. In Dane County alone, the recount found more than 60 uncounted absentee ballots. Neither rejected nor cast, these ballots were simply overlooked on Election Day and later, during both the municipal and county canvasses.
So we know absentee and early ballots are often miscounted by mistake, and we know those mistakes are not noticed except in a recount. We also know that in elections as anywhere else, the best place to hide fraud is where no one looks for it, and where any oddities that are noticed are written off as human error.
So messing with absentee ballots would be a good way to manipulate a relatively small number of votes.
There are many ways to interfere with absentee, mailed-in, and early ballots. As we saw in North Carolina, you can intervene between the voter and the delivery of the ballot to the municipal clerk. (That’s one ‘hack’ that cannot be detected or corrected by a typical recount.)
Local officials can—must, in fact—exercise judgment (e.g., Is this handwriting legible?) when deciding whether to cast or reject an absentee ballot. And while they are exercising that judgment, they can see the name and address of the voter. That means they can make reasonable guesses about which candidate will get the votes if they decide the ballot can be cast. Implicit, unintentional bias almost certainly shapes some decisions; the effect could be much stronger with deliberate effort. Rarely does anyone review their judgments.
To be clear, I’ve seen nothing to indicate that such manipulation was done in this election or any other Wisconsin election, but it’s a fact that it could be done. A recount would clear that up for both those who suspect and those who deny any wrongdoing. If no recount occurs, we’ll just have to keep guessing.
But we are not likely to get a recount. For the past several years, the Legislature–urged on by the Wisconsin County Clerks Association–has tightened the recount law to make it nearly impossible to get a recount in a statewide race. Had an election held in April 2015 produced a victory margin of less than 0.50%, as this one did, Neubauer could have obtained a recount at no cost.
From the 2016 recount, we now know that a 0.58% error rate is a realistic expectation. So we can see why the old law, which made it easy to get a recount if the margin was 0.50%, was sensible. If unlike our legislators, we care about protecting our right to self-government against election errors, a recount is always wise when we could easily be declaring the wrong winner by mistake.
So we will all be well-served if Lisa Neubauer can quickly raise the cash—$2 million, based on the cost of the 2016 recount—that she’ll need to get a recount. The losing candidate is the only one who can buy a recount; our laws assume voters have no standing or interest in accuracy.
But neither she nor we should underestimate the effort needed to raise that much cash that quickly. To get the cash into WEC’s bank account by the deadline, she will need to raise it within about 60 hours of when WEC receives the last county’s official results. Jill Stein had a little longer to raise the money (legislators shortened the deadline after Stein showed it was possible), but this election is not drawing the sorts of national interest that helped Stein raise that much money that fast.
Having said all that, if the result in the Supreme Court race was ‘manipulated,’ my bet would not be on an outcome-flipping miscount, but on the success of a last-minute, under-the-radar, highly targeted, dark-money effort to motivate northern and rural voters to get out and vote for Hagedorn.
But as long as we allow that conduct to be legal (and we do), we cannot call it manipulation. If we want to put an end to that, we’re going to have to do more than complain about it. We’re going to have to fix campaign-finance laws. And to do that, we voters are going to have to get a constitutional amendment.
The Wisconsin Elections Commission met today, and I stayed for most of the agenda.
One agenda item had to do with fixing the snafus that caused a voter-registration list maintenance effort in 2017 to incorrectly ‘deactivate’ thousands of validly registered voters. (You may have heard such efforts described as ‘purges,’ a relatively pejorative term that is fitting whenever voter-list maintenance is used as a voter-suppression tactic.)
Among other things, so many voters were incorrectly removed from the registration lists that poll workers for the past several elections have had to work with two sets of poll books–the regular one for unaffected voters, and a supplemental list of voters who had been struck from the rolls but who would be allowed to vote if they showed up on Election Day and attested that they had not, in fact, moved.
There are dozens of reasons, it turns out, why State of Wisconsin computers got confused about whether these voters had moved. They have to do with things like registering a vehicle with your personal name but your business address, or buying a car for your college student in La Crosse and registering it there instead of where you vote. I won’t go into all the details. If you’re curious, you can read the staff report starting on page 72 of this document.
I spend a lot of time reading about election-integrity problems in other states. That means I read about a lot of skuzzy partisan machinations.
I also spend some time talking with local election officials. That, unfortunately, exposes me to much whining, excuse-making, buck-passing and “no law says I have to” attitude.
Here’s why the WEC discussion impressed me so much that I had to come home and write this blog post.
The discussion was pure, unadulterated problem-solving, start to finish. No one was looking for a partisan angle or opportunity. Not one single commissioner or staff member was whining. No energy was wasted on self-protective defensiveness, or on denying or minimizing the problems. I heard no attempts at buck-passing, no excuses.
Unlike what I hear when I talk to many local election officials about vote tabulation, no one at WEC was pointing out that statutes require them to do the work but don’t require them to do it right. It didn’t seem to cross any Commissioner’s mind to avoid their managerial obligation to detect, analyze, and correct problems until someone passes a law forcing them to do that, and paying them extra for it.
WEC commissioners and staff were straight-up committed to discovering the extent of the problems and what caused them, and to making sure they never happen again. Commissioners asked staff for hard data on error rates, and made sure that staff are not sending any more deactivation notices until the problems are fixed. Staff, for their part, were as committed to getting past problems corrected and future problems averted as the Commissioners were.
This is what responsible election administrators look like.
I wish all voters could have seen what I saw today. And I wish some reporter would write about it when good work gets done.
In brief: Jill Stein’s post-recount organization, Voting Justice, won a victory over voting machines companies ES&S and Dominion in Wisconsin. Stein will be allowed to bring in experts to examine the software for several models of voting machines, and those experts will be able to report their findings publicly. These machines are used not just in Wisconsin, but around the nation. That is all very good.
But this victory is only a breach in the wall of secrecy, not a demolition. Several factors will limit the benefits that will flow from this victory. If we’re going to secure future elections, we will need to thank Jill Stein and the Wisconsin Elections Commission–and keep on fighting.
An otherwise well-informed voter could be forgiven for not realizing that the 2016 Presidential recount effort, led by the Green Party’s Jill Stein, is still producing valuable results.
Corporate news media see elections as horse races. Once a winner is declared and the bets paid out, journalistic curiosity dies. Editors see no story in the poor overall quality of American election administration.
So the 2016 Presidential Recount—completed in Wisconsin, aborted in Michigan and Pennsylvania, not even attempted elsewhere—got a big media yawn when it did not change in the outcome.
Here’s some news you may have missed as a result:
Since 2016, the products of the recounts have supported organizers’ efforts to improve elections administration—with impressive success. In Pennsylvania, Stein’s organizers used a recount-related lawsuit to force that state to prohibit paperless voting machines and require routine election audits after future elections.
In Wisconsin, the recount produced a mountain of before-and-after data, from every polling place, for every candidate. Academics from MIT, Harvard, and the University of Wisconsin analyzed it. Although the recount increased neither Trump’s nor Clinton’s ultimate total by more than a few hundred votes, the researchers discovered that more than 17,600 votes had originally been miscounted—or 1 in every 170.
Those stunning findings were ignored by the news media, but the Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC) took note. I believe that study contributed to their 2018 decision to encourage county clerks to improve embarrassingly weak canvass practices. (The ‘canvass’ is the weeks-long process after Election Day, during which local election officials should review the results to make sure they are correct.)
A unique Wisconsin law requires voting machine companies to place a copy of the actual vote-tabulating software in escrow after every election. Separate from the process of approving voting machines for sale, this requirement was originally intended to protect local governments’ voting-equipment investment. In case a company went out of business, the State would have a working copy of the most recently updated software as backup to keep the machines counting.
The law also requires the State to allow candidates to inspect the escrowed software if the candidates agree “to exercise the highest degree of reasonable care to maintain the confidentiality of all proprietary information.” The software in Wisconsin voting machines is the same as that used in other states, and any inspection could have national implications.
So the Stein campaign asked to inspect the software. They and WEC reached agreement on how Stein’s experts can examine the software without having the opportunity to steal the voting machine companies’ trade secrets. (I can hear the computer-security academics scoffing: “As if anyone would want to!”)
But when the voting-machine companies saw the agreement, ES&S and Dominion didn’t want to play by those rules. The two major players in Wisconsin’s voting-machine market wanted WEC to impose a gag order on Stein’s inspectors.
WEC said “No gag order.” The companies sued.
Their demand of the court was basically: “If you’re going to let Jill Stein’s experts examine our software, prohibit them from ever telling anyone their conclusions.” In other words, the voting machine companies wanted the judge to declare that the experts’ opinions were the companies’ proprietary trade secrets.
Dane County Circuit Court Judge Stephen Elke backed the WEC and turned the voting machine companies down. Likely sensing the main reason why any company would seek such a gag order, the judge wrote:
By way of example, a nutritionist might be given access to the secret formula for Coca-cola, which is undeniably a trade secret. It would not be a disclosure of that trade secret for the nutritionist to say, “After seeing the secret formula, I can tell you that Coca-cola is unhealthy and I would never let my own children drink it.”
This is a breakthrough. To my knowledge, independent experts have never before been able to examine “the software components that were used to record and tally the votes in an election” with the approval and support of the state elections agency. That software is defined as “the vote-counting source code, the table structures, modules, program narratives, and other human-readable instructions used to count votes.”
Whatever the inspectors find, the voting-machine companies will not be able to say “But the software you saw was only for review purposes. We had fixed that problem in the operational software.” If they make that claim, they’re admitting they violated the Wisconsin law that required them to provide the State with the software that was used in the election.
And what will their inspection find? Smart money would lay odds on serious problems. You need to know only the basics about profit-seeking corporations and low-bid procurement to predict flaws and holes in a product that the manufacturers believed was eternally protected from scrutiny.
We’ll have to wait to see how well the inspectors can describe those problems without violating their pledge to maintain secrecy about the details of the coding. However, this is the best opportunity so far.
A final benefit is, I believe, this decision’s effect on efforts in other states to compel independent examination of vote-tabulating software. With this precedent, those efforts will be more likely to go forward and more likely to succeed. Wisconsin has shown that states can require voting machine companies to allow inspection of the software that will count our votes.
The wall of secrecy surrounding the “black box” voting-machine programs has been breached. But it has not been torn down. The Stein team grabbed the opportunity that presented itself and made the most of it, but the benefits have limitations.
The first limitation is that this is a one-time event. If no other candidate ever demands to inspect the software, it will never again be inspected. We don’t yet have routine quality assurance.
Second, this decision does nothing, in itself, to banish proprietary software from public elections. If we want to get any closer to open-source software and routine quality assurance inspections, we’re going to have to force this review’s eventual findings into the public’s and legislators’ awareness. We’re going to have to do that ourselves. Count on the news media to maintain their willful blindness to any news, however shocking, that lacks a Republican vs. Democrat partisan angle.
Third, while this review will be able to identify any defects or vulnerabilities in the master copy of each systems software, the inspectors won’t be able to tell whether the election was hacked.
Computer programs can be manipulated in ways that are undetectable to even expert forensic analysts. In Brave New Ballot, Johns Hopkins University computer-science professor Aviel Rubin recounted how he annually provides his graduate computer-forensics students with programming he has hacked at the level of the binary code (that is, the ones and zeroes that underlie the human-readable source code). Years go by between the times when a grad student detects the hacked code, and grad students have been able to stump him, too.
Neither voting-machine companies nor election officials will be able to provide Stein’s inspectors with the software that actually counted votes on Election Day. In a “precinct-count” state like Wisconsin, computer tabulation takes place in thousands of separate computers—at least one at every polling place. Before each election, those machines’ software is copied, recopied, and modified for the many different sets of races and candidates that appear on the jurisdictions’ different ballots. In counties that use the Dominion ImageCast Evolution system (with the exception of Fond du Lac County), the software has even been transmitted over the internet from the Colorado manufacturer to the county clerk. Therefore, to confirm with certainty that the software in every machine was compliant in even one election, inspectors would have to obtain access to the thousands of copies. No one is in a position to collect all that software in a single place, and Stein’s experts wouldn’t have time to review it even if it could be collected.
Voting machines can be made to mis-tabulate without altering the source code that Stein’s experts will review. For example, a corrupt or lazy service technician could have installed unauthorized remote-access capability in the county elections computer (as Pennsylvania clerks discovered, to their dismay, in 2014) or in individual voting machines. Later, someone could have taken control of the machines’ output (that is, our election results) simply bypassing or overriding the authorized software.
The best possible outcome of these reviews would be that the experts will find the weaknesses, report them out, and motivate legislatures nationwide to adopt laws requiring open-source software and routine independent software inspection in every local jurisdiction in every election.
But even if that happens, it will not close and lock the door against outcome-altering mis-tabulation of our votes.
The only effective protection against hacked elections remains what it has always been: Routine, manual verification of the correct winners, using paper ballots, completed before the results are declared final.
Routine detection-and-correction is the onlysecurity measure strong enough to deter hacking while also protecting final election results against undetected error and malfunction.
It is the only way surely to protect the true voice of the people.
December 19, 2018 — “As the secret ballot transformed elections in the last century,” said Joseph Hall, Chief Technologist for the Center for Democracy and Technology, “risk-limiting audits are going to transform elections in this century.”
In a few years, Americans will look back, aghast, at our current election management. We will be amazed that we ever trusted vote-tabulating computers so much that we routinely declared winners without checking results for evidence of fraud, glitches, or human error. We will consider routine verification to be an indispensable part of managing elections, just as cash-register reconciliation is now for managing the corner convenience store.
In preparation for that day, it’s time to understand: What is a “risk-limiting audit”?
First, a risk-limiting audit is not a specific set of steps or statistical calculations. Like “home-heating system,” the term describes a function, not a method. If a system heats your home, it’s a home-heating system. If it doesn’t, it’s not. A wood-burning stove is a home-heating system. Electrified tile floors are a home-heating system. Triple-pane windows and attic insulation are not.
A risk-limiting audit is any review that imposes a precise limit, such as 10%, on the risk of certifying incorrect results in the event that Election-Night results identified the wrong winner. Any review that accomplishes that is a risk-limiting audit. If it doesn’t, it’s not. For example, pre-election voting-machine tests and hand-counting to verify a few voting machines’ results are good. But even when completed correctly, they do not precisely limit the risk that officials will detect and correct any outcome-altering miscounts.
(Though it’s not part of the official definition of risk-limiting audit, I’ll mention the other side of the coin. In the event that Election-Night results identified the right winner, a risk-limiting audit does not reduce the risk that officials will certify the wrong one. That risk stays at zero.)
You might be surprised that statistical analysis is not a required feature of risk-limiting audits. A full recount uses no statistical methods and if done correctly, limits the risk of declaring the wrong winner to zero. Therefore, it’s a risk-limiting audit. But full recounts require too much effort to be used routinely. So to reduce the time and effort needed to confirm elections, most types of risk-limiting audits use random sampling for selection and statistical processes for analysis.
Another feature of risk-limiting audits is manual inspection of voter-verified paper ballots. Until some as-yet-uninvented technology comes along, we can verify the computers’ verdicts only by comparing them against something that didn’t come from a computer. That is, we need direct human observation of the paper ballots that were marked, or at least verified, by the voters themselves.
Finally, the word ‘audit’ doesn’t mean what you probably think it means. Outside elections, independent auditors perform audits after auditees have completed the work. In contrast, a risk-limiting audit is completed by the responsible officials as part of their work of certifying election results. A post-certification review might provide useful information for the next election, but it cannot limit the risk that the wrong winner was certified in this one. Risk-limiting audits probably should have been called ‘risk-limiting reconciliation’ or ‘risk-limiting verification,’ but it’s too late to change that now.
In brief, the exercise uses playing cards to represent ballots containing votes for Black or Red. The cards are sorted into piles representing precincts; a sample is randomly drawn from across all participating precincts. Each card either builds or reduces confidence in the Election-Night results, until a pre-determined acceptable level of confidence is achieved—or is not. To do this exercise, you’ll need:
two decks of playing cards;
a pencil; and
a random-number generator.
Note: the statistics in this exercise are realistic but not precise; they are for illustration purposes only. A real election audit would use a sample size and confidence level calculated for the results being audited.
Example #1: When Election-Night results are correct
The first illustration will show how a risk-limiting audit plays out when Election-Night results identified the correct winner.
1. Get two decks of playing cards. They don’t need to be the same design, but the same shape and size will make them easier to work with. From one deck, remove the jokers and set the hearts aside. This leaves 39 cards in this deck—26 black ‘votes’ and 13 red.
2. From the other deck, remove the jokers and set aside both the hearts and diamonds. This leaves 26 cards in this deck, all black.
3. Shuffle all 65 cards together, but not thoroughly. Actual ballots will not be thoroughly shuffled; your cards don’t need to be, either.
4. Separate the cards into six stacks to represent precincts. You don’t need to make them the same size. In the real world, some precincts have more voters than others. Label the stacks “Precinct A,” “Precinct B,” and so on up to “Precinct F.”
5. Count the cards in each precinct consecutively and write the numbers on the labels. For example, if Precinct A has 12 cards, you will write “1-12” on that label. Then start Precinct B’s count with 13, so that Precinct B’s label will be something like “13-23.” Precinct C will be something like “24-35,” and so forth. If you’ve counted correctly, the last card in Precinct F will be 65. Some vocabulary: A list of precincts indicating the number of ballots in each (e.g., Precinct D has 13 ballots) is a “ballot manifest.” When you assign a unique number to each ballot (e.g., Precinct D contains the 36th through the 48th ballot), it becomes a “ballot look-up table.”
Now, imagine you’re the official who is responsible for certifying this election. You know the possibility of an outcome-altering Election-Night miscount is remote. Nevertheless, you want to: 1) deter fraud in future elections, 2) demonstrate to the voters that local elections are secure against even remote risks; and 3) make sure you don’t miss even a remote possibility of declaring the wrong winner.
So you’ve decided to give yourself at least a 90% chance of detecting any outcome-altering miscount before you declare the official winner. In other words, you have decided to impose a 10% limit on the risk that you will fail to notice and correct any such miscount. (You could choose a different level of risk, if you wish.) If the machines identified the correct winner, there is a 0% chance an audit will reverse that.
Initial Election-Night results indicated that Black got 80% of the vote and Red got 20%. While you haven’t looked at any ballots yet, you know how many were cast. Using that information, you consult with a statistician or the risk-limiting audit website to find out how big your manually counted sample needs to be to confirm the right winner or to detect the wrong one.
In a real risk-limiting audit, you would be told a specific number of ballots to draw for the first sample—up to a few hundred, depending on the margin of victory and the number of ballots cast in the race. Your statistician or the RLA website could also generate random numbers for you, to determine which ballots to draw for the sample. For this demonstration, let’s imagine you were told to select 10 ballots.
6. Create a score sheet with columns for the random number, the color of the card, a confidence score for each card, and a running confidence total.
8. Then find each card. For example, if the first randomly selected ballot was #38, you would check the ballot look-up table and see that card #38 is the third card in precinct D. Look at that card, record its color in the second column, and replace it.
If the sampled card was black, it builds confidence that the preliminary results were correct when they identified Black as the winner. Note +5 confidence points for that card in the third column, and add 5 points to the confidence total in the fourth column.
If the sampled card was red, it reduces confidence in the preliminary results. Note –10 confidence points in the third column, and subtract 10 points from the confidence total in the fourth column.
9. When you’ve recorded the color of each card in the sample, look at your total confidence score. If it is 25 or higher, you have statistically confirmed, with 90% confidence or more, that no Election-Day miscount identified the wrong winner. You can end the audit and certify the results.
The photo below shows that this audit could have stopped after the eighth card, because the confidence score reached 25 at that point. On average, an audit like this would need to inspect 14 cards to reach a confidence level of 25—if, that is, the Election Night result was correct.
If your confidence score is less than 25, select another random ballot, and another, until the total confidence level reaches 25. (Or until you realize that you messed up the first two steps of this exercise and are working with a deck in which there are actually more red than black cards.)
#2: When Election-Night results are incorrect
The second part of this exercise shows what happens when Election-Night results were wrong.
1. Retrieve the red cards you set aside, so that you are using all 104 cards from both decks. Shuffle them together. Again, this does not need to be a thorough shuffle. Some ‘precincts’ can be mostly red and some mostly black.
2. Separate the cards into 9 stacks of differing sizes to represent precincts. As in step 5 above, count the cards in each stack to create a ballot look-up table.
3. In this exercise, we know the election was a tie. But in a real election, we would not know that, because the computers told us that Black won, and we have not yet inspected any ballots. So we would give the same information to the statistician or RLA website that we did in the previous example—that is, an 80% victory for Black. Given that situation, the instructions we receive would be the same: Select a random sample of 10 ballots by generating 10 random numbers—this time, between 1 and 104, because we have more ‘ballots.’
4. As in the first exercise, use the ballot look-up table to find each card selected for the sample. Note the color of each and confidence points on the tally sheet. Check to see whether the total confidence score reached 25. In this case, it did not. It is possible that your first sample reached a confidence score of 25 or more. If so, your audit incorrectly confirmed a miscounted election. This can happen—statistical confidence is not the same as rock-solid certainty. A 90% confidence target means that 10% of the time it will be wrong. To calm your nerves, think of this from the point of view of election thieves who see a 90% chance that their handiwork will be noticed and corrected.
5. If the total confidence score is less than 25, you have not yet confirmed the Election-Night results, so you will need to expand the sample by inspecting more random ballots.
When the Election Night results are wrong, the more ballots you sample, the lower your confidence level will sink. As shown in the photo, as more and more ballots are inspected, it becomes more and more apparent that the preliminary results are just not right.
Election officials who conduct risk-limiting audits of real elections adopt written policies that address this possibility. A sensible policy, for example, might dictate that the audit will stop if it fails to confirm the outcome with two additional samples, and the effort will instead be put into a manual count of 100% of the ballots.
About sample size, statistical confidence, and emotional confidence
One concept should now be clear: A random sample of ballots is a miniature version of the entire election. The same winner will emerge from both–if both are accurately counted.
In the first exercise above, Black had more votes in the whole set of ballots from which the sample was drawn. As a result, more of the randomly selected ballots contained votes for Black than for Red. In the second exercise, Black did NOT have more votes than Red, and so we could not confirm a Black victory no matter how many ballots we randomly drew.
In other words, when preliminary election results have identified the correct winner, inspection of a relatively small number of randomly selected ballots provides strong evidence of accuracy. Conversely, if preliminary election results identified the wrong winner, inspecting a random sample of ballots will reveal the problem before officials certify the election.
Once we see that random samples reflect the true results, the next question is what size sample works best. Smaller samples reduce work, but increase uncertainty. Larger samples provide more confidence, but are more work.
This demonstration started with samples of 10 cards, which in the 65-card ‘election’ was a little more than 15% of the ballots. In a real election audit, the initial sample size would not need to be anything close to 15% of total ballots, particularly if the preliminary results indicated an outcome as decisive as this one.
To work through a real-life example, let’s look at the 2018 race for US Congress in Wisconsin’s First Congressional District. This reasonably close and hotly contested race filled the seat being vacated by former Speaker Paul Ryan. The actual results were: 325,003 total ballots; 177,490 votes for Steil; 137,507 for Bryce; and 10,006 for Yorgan.
When you plug these results along with a 10% risk limit into the online tools for ballot-polling RLAs, statistical operations built into that tool predict that you will likely be able to confirm Steil’s victory, if Steil actually won, with an initial sample of only 301 ballots. That’s only one-tenth of one percent of the 325,003 total ballots. If Steil did not truly win, auditing 301 ballots would produce results more like the second example above–forcing officials to keep expanding the sample until it was obvious that the Election-Night results were incorrect. (Instead of using +5, -10, and 25 total points as indicators of confidence, officials would have counted the votes in the sample and could have used the online tools to assess the results. See the section titled “Should more ballots be audited?” at the bottom of this page.)
If election officials did not believe that 301 ballots would provide voters with enough subjective confidence in the result (as opposed to statistical confidence), they could have selected a smaller risk limit. In this congressional election, a 5% risk limit would have needed an initial random sample of 389 ballots; a 1% risk limit, a random sample of 594 ballots. Or, election officials could adopt an audit policy that every initial sample will contain either enough ballots to support a 5% risk limit, or 1,000 ballots, whichever is greater.
Other lessons from this exercise
This exercise highlighted risk-limiting audits’ tightly focused purpose—to detect and correct any outcome-altering miscounts. This purpose is critical for election security and for voter confidence, but does not solve all problems. Election officials must perform other types of reviews to determine the cause of any miscounts and to monitor other important issues, including:
The presence of any miscounts that may have disenfranchised some voters without affecting the outcome;
The accuracy of any single precinct’s or voting machine’s tabulation;
The quality of any of the processes that determine which ballots were cast and accepted, such as issues with voter registration or ID, or whether all and only valid absentee ballots were accepted and counted.
In addition, this exercise simulated only one type of risk-limiting audit, known as a “ballot-polling audit.” Depending upon the size of the election, the type of records created by the voting-equipment, and other factors, election officials might decide to use a different type of RLA, such as a “comparison risk-limiting audit” or a Bayesian audit. Election officials do not need to read and digest the scholarly articles. Federal officials, staff in jurisdictions that have experience with auditing, and other experts are willing to help local election clerks understand the options well enough to make the right choices and get started with election auditing. A local election official can likely find useful help as close as the nearest local government official who has expertise related to auditing or quality assurance.
This exercise also probably raised some implementation questions: How can election officials draw a random sample in a election for which ballots are stored in sealed bags across hundreds of municipalities? How do you know how big your sample needs to be if you want to verify the outcomes in two or more races? Election officials who have started with risk-limiting audits have tackled these questions, and more solutions are being worked out with each new election. The solutions are not always easy or obvious, but local election officials who want to try their hand at risk-limiting audits need only to ask those with experience.
Finally, this exercise demonstrated that even risk-limiting audits might, on occasion, fail to detect miscounted election results. A 90% chance that serious fraud will be detected and corrected is the same thing as a 10% chance it will not be.
That highlights the need to keep two other facts in mind. First, a 90% chance of detecting fraud is better than the 0% chance that non-auditing election officials and their voters now tolerate. Second, the audits’ greatest value is, arguably, deterrence. When would-be election thieves contemplate a 90% risk of getting caught, there’s a good chance that election officials will have no electronic election fraud to detect.electionscounting votesWisconsinrisk-limiting auditsdemonstratio