5 ways to help protect Wisconsin elections

People have lots of ideas about how to ensure accurate election results, including throwing away the voting machines or piling on more pre-election security measures. Some of these ideas will help.

But without waiting for years of debate and sluggish legislative action, citizens can do five things right now under current law to make election miscounts less likely or to make sure mistakes and miscounts get caught in time to be corrected.

  1. Let your local election officials know that you want voter-marked paper ballots.
  2. Observe voting-machine tests before each election.
  3. Observe poll-closing activities at your precinct.
  4. Observe municipal and county canvass meetings
  5. Encourage your local officials to perform post-election voting machine audits and observe them.

(Detailed instructions for the last four activities are here.)

1. Let your local election officials know that you want voter-marked paper ballots.

Two basic kinds of voting machines are used in Wisconsin: voting machines that count votes directly from a touchscreen, where the voter never touches a ballot (DREs); and optical scanners, which count votes by reading a hard-copy paper ballot that voters insert into the machine. 

Of those two systems, voter-marked paper ballots provide a much more secure and reliable record of your vote. Even people with disabilities can mark their own paper ballots by using an electronic ballot-marking device, which is available in every polling place. (These machines have touchscreens, but they do not count any votes.)

Both types of voting machines can be hacked in much the same ways, and both can malfuntion. But DREs are less secure because the only paper record of anyone’s vote is created by the machine, not by the voter. It’s good that Wisconsin’s touch-screen machines print a “voter-verifiable paper trail” that any voter can look at to make sure his or her vote was printed correctly–some states’ machines don’t. However, studies have shown that only a fraction of voters ever look at their printed paper ballot before they leave the polling place, and only a fraction who notice errors report them. The 2016 recount found many polling places in which no usable paper trail printed at all, and no one noticed on Election Day in time to make sure a paper record was created for every voter.

As a result, hackers know that even if they program the DRE computer to switch a portion of their opponents’ votes, so few voters will say anything to the poll workers that the switches will likely be assumed to be voter error. Mechanical problems can also prevent the trail from printing properly, rendering the election results unauditable.

County clerks and municipal clerks choose what type of voting system your polling place will use. Regardless of which system your municipality now uses, contact your county and municipal clerks at any time to let them know you prefer voting systems that allow voters to mark their own ballots–that is, systems that use paper ballots. Voting machines wear out, so whichever type of system you are using now could be replaced by the other kind. If voters do not make their preferences known, county and municipal clerks will be influenced only by the voting-machine vendors. Talk to your friends and family about the importance of  retaining a voter-marked paper record of every ballot, and have them contact local election officials, too.

*  *  * 

2.  Observe voting-machine tests before each election.

Every voting machine needs to be set up specifically for the unique set of races and candidates running in each election. Within 10 days before each election, your municipal clerk tests each voting machine to verify it is set up correctly. While these tests cannot predict or prevent Election-Day malfunction, they are indispensable for detecting mistakes or mis-calibrations in the way the machine was set up.

Citizen observation of the voting-machine tests provides clerks with witnesses to the quality and completeness of their testing; helps to make sure the tests are in fact done; and helps to make sure any problems are noted and corrected before Election Day. Procedures for these tests are available online in the Election Administration Manual.  

Instructions for observing these tests are here.

*  *  *

3. Observe poll-closing activities at your precinct.

Most poll-watchers depart when the polls close, or stay only to see the results printed out, leaving poll workers without citizen observation for such critical tasks as reconciling the number of ballots with the number of voters; processing write-in votes; securing the unmarked ballots; sealing ballot bags; and more.  This is the most complicated of the processes open to citizen observers, but it’s not rocket science. Read through the poll-closing instructions in the Election Day Manual; sign in before polls close with your precinct’s chief inspector, follow his or her directions, and you’ll do fine.

Even if you do not know proper poll-closing techniques as well as the poll workers performing those activities, the presence of citizen observers helps to reduce the likelihood of both fraud and error. We are not accusing election officials of anything worse than being normal humans when we point out that observers make carelessness less likely, makes problems more likely to be noticed, and makes noticed problems less likely to be swept under the rug.

Most clerks welcome citizen observers because the observers’ presence protects honest, competent clerks from suspicion and can provide independent verification of the election’s integrity. 

Instructions for observing poll-closing activities are here.

*  *  *

 4.  Observe municipal and county canvass meetings

Within a few days after each election, small “Boards of Canvass” meet in each jurisdiction to review the results from all the precincts; review the records from Election Day; resolve any loose ends such as late-arriving but valid absentee votes and any challenged or provisional votes; check the totals when all the precincts’ results are added together, and make the election results final and official.

This is the municipality’s or county’s best chance to notice and correct problems in the vote-totals. Citizen observers can help to ensure that anomalies—such as a suspiciously high number of blank ballots, which might have resulted from a malfunctioning voting machine—are noticed and resolved. The presence of citizen observers can help to make sure required procedures are followed–such as examining each precinct’s totals for suspiciously high proportions of  undervotes.

Instructions for observing canvass meetings are here.

*  *  *

5. Encourage your local officials to perform post-election voting machine audits and observe them.

After every election in the November of even-numbered years, after election results have been declared final, the Wisconsin Elections Commission randomly selects a random sample of precincts statewide and instructs those municipalities to conduct post-election voting machine audits. In addition, clerks may, if citizens request, verify the accuracy of voting-machine output at any time after the election–including before certification, if precautions are taken to preserve a well-documented chain of custody. 

A voting-machine audit done at WEC’s direction must consist of a hand count of all the votes in several races selected by the WEC, and comparison of the hand-count total to the machine-tabulated total. Although these audits have several serious limitations, which we documented in our 2013 report, they provide local election officials and citizens a valuable opportunity to assess how well the machines operated.

Audits performed at the initiative of local election officials or citizens can use more efficient methods of verifying the machines’ results, some of which are referenced in the same report. Encourage your local election officials to adopt a practice of routinely auditing at least some randomly selected voting machines after every election. With routine practice, the audit process will become more efficient, and with publicity, even a small amount of random auditing will have a big deterrent effect on fraud and carelessness. 

Regardless of whether the audit is ordered by WEC or done at local initiative, citizen observers can provide clerks with independent witnesses who can verify they performed the audits correctly; ensure the chain of custody of the ballots was adequately protected; and make sure any oddities that are noticed are not dismissed without being recorded and resolved.

Audits can be particularly efficient in those counties that use optical scan machines that preserve a digital image of each ballot (the ES&S DS200 or the Dominion Imagecast machines). A group of citizens in Dane County, using software that projects the images in something like a slide show, verified the outcome in the City of Madison mayoral primary of February 2015 in less than 45 minutes! (A full hand count would likely have taken the same number of people at least a full day.) Contact us at info@WisconsinElectionIntegrity.org for information on obtaining a copy of this software and written procedures for these audits.

Instructions for observing voting-machine audits are here.


For updates, follow  Wisconsin Election Integrity on Facebook.