The Election Guard we need isn’t one that Microsoft can provide. It’s human.

In brief:  Microsoft’s ElectionGuard is sophisticated technology that gives the public (e.g., voters, parties) the ability to detect signs of electronic vote tampering. This essay describes that product and its live-election test in Fulton, Wisconsin in February 2020. There are two take-away points.
First: Even if ElectionGuard successfully alerts its users to signs of trouble, election officials are unprepared to respond to those signs. We must disabuse ourselves of the fantasy that more or newer or shinier technology, by itself, can compensate for vulnerabilities that exist when no human takes managerial responsibility for the accuracy of the certified results.
Second: The trial run in Fulton created a rare circumstance: On this one day, in this one polling place, the managers in charge were truly committed to producing results of unquestionable accuracy—with no excuses, no whining, no blue smoke or mirrors. And they did, using two simple methods. The critical lesson of Fulton is this: When election managers truly want to, they can produce verified accurate results with minimal additional work and no new technology.


Captain Chesley (Sully) Sullenberger became the face of technology mastery when in January 2009 he safely landed 155 people in the Hudson River after his aircraft did not, shall we say, perform as expected. Later he commented:

“What we have learned is that automation does not decrease problems. It changes the nature of problems. As we use more and more technology in the cockpit, we must always make sure that humans are in complete control of the aircraft and its flight path.”

When it comes to election automation, Americans have not yet learned that lesson. On that future Election Night when the voting machines deliver incorrect vote totals, the election will crash and burn, because our officials are not prepared to take effective control to save it.

It’s a sign of America’s deep-seated desire to trust technology that many readers will dismiss this message unless I remind them of three basic and undebatable facts.

  • First, any computer can be deliberately misprogrammed. Therefore, all voting systems are hackable, either by outsiders or by corrupt insiders. Insiders include the employees and contractors working for voting equipment vendors, service companies, and the local election offices.
  • Second, there is no surefire way to prevent misprogramming, no matter how big the company or how lush the security budget. Computer systems of global corporations as big as Sony and as focused as the US Department of Homeland Security have been compromised. 
  • Finally, American voting-machine companies and our local election clerks have nowhere near the security resources of Sony or the DHS. Not even close. Knowing that malefactors found their way into those systems, it is delusional to imagine voting-equipment companies and town clerks can keep them out of our voting machines forever.

Therefore, responsible citizens accept the inevitable: Sooner or later, American voting machines will be deliberately misprogrammed to miscount on Election Day.

And when that happens, as with US Airways Flight 1549, it will be human actions, not technology, that can save the election. If local officials quickly detect the miscounts and decisively correct them before certification, the election will be saved. If they do not, the election will be a total loss.

However, in most states including Wisconsin, election officials trust the voting machines and the programmers. Full stop. They make no effort to detect outcome-altering miscounts; they have no plans in place to correct the results if miscounts make themselves known. Occasionally, Wisconsin officials check a few randomly selected voting machines’ tallies against the paper ballots, but even if those audits notice one miscounting machine, the officials do not expand the audit to verify the outcome and do not claim to.

In short, we have no Captain Sullenbergers in the cockpit of our elections.


Josh Benaloh, Ph.D., Senior Cryptographer for Microsoft, thinks he has an antidote to the officials’ managerial passivity: Technology that will enable other people to detect miscounts. Staying with the Sullenberger analogy, he wants to enable each passenger independently to monitor the plane’s engine power and altitude.

It’s easy to trust Benaloh’s motives and his expertise. With boy-next-door good looks, Benaloh’s face carries a natural smile that disappears only when he frowns—and sometimes not even then. As whip-smart as they come, Benaloh has degrees from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Yale, and his credentials as a forward-thinking innovator are impeccable: He wrote his doctoral dissertation on verifiable secret-ballot elections in 1987, more than a decade before computerized vote-counting was common, and three decades before election security came into public view as a serious concern. Ask anyone in the field to name the top 10 US experts, and Benaloh’s name is likely to be on their list.

Benaloh and I were among those present in Fulton, Wisconsin last February when a small election (only two races on the ballot) allowed the Microsoft team to demonstrate ElectionGuard, an election-security product Benaloh helped to develop with the company’s Defending Democracy program.  He and I spoke in total for more than two hours that day, during which he explained to me the purpose of ElectionGuard and the basics of how it works.

ElectionGuard is not a voting machine itself, but a program that can be installed on other voting systems, to work in parallel with them. In brief, ElectionGuard will enable voting systems to print a receipt for each voter. The voter will cast the ballot as usual and leave with the receipt, which contains a ballot-tracking code. Later, they can visit a website, enter the code, and get a message: “Your vote was counted!” In addition, because Microsoft is providing the tabulation software free to the public, it will allow others—most likely, candidates’ campaigns—independently to verify the vote totals if they can get the electronic ballot files from the local officials.

Benaloh convinced me that ElectionGuard’s use of advanced encryption methods will make it impossible for anyone to alter the digital record of the votes without leaving obvious evidence, which voters will be able to detect when they enter their ballot-tracking codes.

What he did not convince me of, to his polite but visible frustration that day, was that ElectionGuard will secure our election results or build voter confidence. (See note #1, at the end of this post.) But that’s nothing Benaloh’s inventions or Microsoft’s products can do, any more than Flight 1549’s cockpit dials could have landed that plane safely if Captain Sullenberger not been ready, able, and willing to take charge.


To understand the types of miscounts that ElectionGuard is designed to detect, we need to understand voting-machine systems’ programmable components.

For the Fulton demonstration, equipment was provided by VotingWorks, a young nonprofit, open-source election-equipment vendor based in San Francisco. Benaloh told me that ElectionGuard can be used with hand-marked paper ballot systems, but for the Fulton set-up, voters used touchscreens, rather than pen-and-ink, to indicate their selections. The system included three main components:

  • A ballot-marking device (BMD) is a computer that displays the races and candidates to each voter on a touchscreen monitor. As voters make their selections by touching the display, the BMD translates those touches into digital form, which is transferred to…
  • A printer that produces a paper ballot. The paper ballot used in the Fulton demonstration was of the type that prints votes two ways—once in encoded data (in this case, a QR code) that will be counted, and separately in human-readable text. The voter takes the printed ballot and inserts it into…
  • A tabulator—which reads the votes encoded in the QR code, and records them in a digital file, along with all the other ballots it has read. At the end of the day, the tabulator will tally the votes for each candidate and print the totals on a poll tape. The tabulator might also transmit the vote totals to a central computer to be compiled with results from other polling places.

In normal use (though not in the Fulton demonstration), that whole set-up is managed through:

  • A central elections management computer, which in Wisconsin is operated by the county clerk. As the conduit for the software that is installed in the polling-place equipment, these central computers are the most likely target for malicious interference. For example, if a malefactor bribed a technician to install remote-access capability on Milwaukee County’s election management computer at some time in the past, that malefactor could alter the software on any or all of the hundreds of pieces of voting equipment in that county.

What types of hacks is ElectionGuard designed to detect?

Malefactors have two high-level options: They can create chaos with obvious malfunctions, or they can alter results while trying to postpone or escape detection.

Chaos-seeking malefactors might do things such as prevent the equipment from powering up on Election Day; make the BMDs print ballots the tabulators cannot read; or make the tabulators produce nonsensical results on Election Night. ElectionGuard could detect some of those problems but when the malefactor has already made sure the problem is obvious, ElectionGuard’s detection is not needed. Nor does ElectionGuard give managers any new options for responding to chaos.

But what if the malefactors try to postpone or even escape detection? In that case, ElectionGuard might or might not help. It depends on whether the malefactor hacked the BMD or the tabulator.  

Because ElectionGuard relies on the BMD’s digital interpretation of the votes, it cannot detect hacks that made the BMD misinterpret input (that is, the voters’ touches). If the BMD misinterprets a touch on Alexander Hamilton’s name as a vote for Aaron Burr, ElectionGuard will, too. (Benaloh disagrees with this statement. See note #2.)

However, if the malefactor works with the tabulator rather than the BMD, ElectionGuard can enable detection.

When a voter inserts the paper ballot into the tabulator (with or without ElectionGuard), the tabulator interprets the votes recorded on that ballot; internally creates a digital record of each vote; and uses that record to tally results at the end of the day.

One of the ways a malefactor might intervene is this process is to make the tabulator look at the ballots with votes for Hamilton and record some of them, in its own memory, as votes for Burr. Then when the machine tallies the votes at the end of the day, Burr would be credited with some of Hamilton’s votes.

Without ElectionGuard, hand-counted audits are the only way to detect that problem. But when BMDs are equipped with ElectionGuard, each voter gets a separate, printed receipt with their ballot, as shown below. The ballot has a unique ballot ID number, and the receipt has a unique ballot tracking code, allowing ElectionGuard to match the two.

When the voters inserted their ballots into the tabulator, the tabulator worked as it normally would have without ElectionGuard, while ElectionGuard created a separate electronic record of the votes, in encrypted form, tagged with the unique tracking code.

Later, after Election Day, the voters are able to visit a website, enter their tracking code, and see a message. (See Note #3 for Benaloh’s thoughts about who should host this website.) If the ElectionGuard record of that ballot matches the tabulator’s, the voter will see “Your vote was counted!”  (That is all it will tell them; it does not reveal even to the voter which candidate received the votes.) If the tabulator’s interpretation of the votes did not match the votes that ElectionGuard recorded, the voter would not receive the confirmation message.

And then what?

Well, that’s up to the election officials. Voters will start reporting problems the day following the election. Your guess is as good as mine about how many such reports each clerk will need before he or she stops assuming voter error and starts to question whether the equipment might be at fault. There is nothing in Wisconsin law or practice that requires clerks to take voters’ reports seriously.

Nor does anyone know what the clerks will do if they believe the voters’ reports of trouble—not even the clerks. Captain Sullenberger knew what to do when he realized his plane had lost its engines. But our election pilots trust their voting equipment so completely that they fly without emergency procedures.

Another way a malefactor might intervene would be to allow the tabulator to record the individual votes correctly in its own memory, but cause it to produce incorrect vote totals at the end of the day. That is, if 60% of the ballots contained a vote for Hamilton, the tabulator would correctly record each individual vote in its memory, but at the end of the day produce vote totals showing 60% of the votes going to Burr. In that case, ElectionGuard would tell every individual voter “Your vote was counted!,” which is, I suppose, true-ish.

But ElectionGuard would reveal that problem in a different way. Its open-source code enables anyone with programming skills to create their own verification tool. So if campaigns or political parties can get the election’s digital ballot files from the election officials, they will be able to tabulate the votes themselves. Microsoft will provide, free of charge, the source code needed to write those tabulation programs, even while the votes remain encrypted.

Currently, no one in Wisconsin verifies computer-generated vote totals, so ElectionGuard would be an improvement.

But will independent tabulation using ElectionGuard ever save a miscounted election? Probably not. At most, it will provoke expensive but futile lawsuits. The miscount won’t be corrected for at least two reasons.

First, it is highly unlikely election officials will allow access to the ballot files until after the results have been officially and finally certified, at which point no corrections are legally possible. And because there is no chance that a re-tabulation would lead to a correction, campaigns will be unlikely to bother. Benaloh agrees: “There would be minimal value in using ElectionGuard in a situation in which the election record is not made public until after certification.”

Second, even if clerks do release the ballot files immediately following Election Day, unofficial audits have no standing. Citizens’ groups that report miscounts are ignored. When such groups have documented miscounts in the past, officials did nothing; the press yawned; and the results were not corrected. The public has no credibility.

If one of the candidates’ campaigns used ElectionGuard to detect a miscount, there might be more sound and fury, but still no correction. Imagine, for example, that the Trump campaign had been able to use ElectionGuard in November 2020. If they had announced they’d found a miscount, officials would have issued statements saying that the campaign must have done it wrong. The Biden campaign would not have done their own re-tabulation; there is no reason why an Election-Night winner ever would. Instead, the Biden campaign, the officials, and the press would have insisted, correctly, that the Trump campaign’s only legal recourse was to demand a recount.

Unlike most candidates, Trump was able to force a partial recount, but that’s a rare situation. Recounts in Wisconsin are available only to second-place candidates who lose by less than a 1% margin, and even they must be able to pay the full estimated (and inflated) cost of the recount upfront in cash, unless they lost by less than 0.25%. Wisconsin Republicans will remember that, as close as the 2018 governor’s race was, and as widespread as concerns were about the City of Milwaukee’s atypical reporting, Scott Walker’s 1.1% loss margin prohibited him from even petitioning for a recount. ElectionGuard cannot change that.

In addition, a Wisconsin recount would be performed by running the ballots back through tabulators that have been ‘reprogrammed’ only to prevent them from printing out results for any but the recounted race. The tabulators’ second count would agree with the first and be accepted as confirmation, and the ElectionGuard results would be dismissed. When the buzzer sounds for the certification process, the victory will go to the malefactors.

So, sure, we can install ElectionGuard on America’s voting systems, and it will do no harm. When an election is hacked, it will be as helpful to voters as a set of cockpit dials on each seatback would have been for the passengers on Flight 1549: “Notice: This plane has lost all engine power.”

On that day, as with the Miracle on the Hudson, the only way to save the election will be for the professionals in the cockpit to take decisive, competent, manual control and bring the thing in for a safe, if atypical, landing.

Captain Sullenberger was prepared to do that. Our election clerks are not.

Fortunately, that is not the whole story. The Fulton demonstration did show how American election officials can make sure only correct winners are certified. It showed us what happens when those in control of the voting equipment really, truly, desperately, and sincerely want accurate election results. And that is the most important lesson of the Fulton demonstration.

When running a normal election (that is, when they are not demonstrating or testing new technology), officials need only to produce credible results. Notice I did not say accurate results. Fact is, they don’t normally have to prove accuracy to anyone, not even themselves.   

In that respect, the Fulton demonstration was a unique situation and uniquely instructive. Microsoft spent years and hundreds of thousands of dollars, drawing upon some of the best cyber-talent in the nation to develop ElectionGuard. For its first public demonstration, the organizers could not simply say “We believe the results are accurate because we trust the computers and you should, too.” In Fulton, they knew they had to prove accuracy. Otherwise, the whole thing would have been an embarrassing waste of time.

So they managed the polling place in a way that produced rock-solid results of unimpeachable accuracy. That effort required only two easy safeguards—one that verified BMD performance, and one that verified the tabulator. Neither used any new technology.

I’ll let Microsoft tell you about the safeguard that checked the tabulator’s accuracy:

“One of the things we wanted to do was … to make sure that the voters would never have to question that the results were accurate. There would be a hand-count of the paper ballots at the end of the day as the officially certified result. It took the poll workers maybe only 15 minutes to actually count the votes. We compared all three results (the voting-machine poll tape, the ElectionGuard tabulation, and the hand count) and all three matched, which was exactly what we were going for.”

Yes, when Microsoft the Global Tech Giant knew it had to produce accurate election results—leaving no shadow of a doubt—they hand-counted paper ballots. Or, more precisely, they counted the votes using two different methods (two computer-tabulated counts, and one hand count) and compared the results to make sure they matched.

It took them only 15 extra minutes. In larger elections, officials would not need to count every vote to verify the correct winner: Election authorities have developed methods that allow officials to confirm the right winners by hand-counting only a small sample of ballots—much like an exit poll that looks at ballots instead of interviewing voters.

But what about the BMD? How did the Fulton demonstrators ensure that the computer-generated ballots were accurate records of the voters’ selections?  

Verifying ballots’ accuracy is not an issue when voters mark their own ballots with a pen. If no vote is recorded as the voter touches pen to paper, the voters notice and tell the poll workers that the pen is out of ink. And if a voter touched a pen to one oval and a different oval turned black, the voters would positively flip out.

But when voters make their selections by touching a display on a computer monitor, it’s possible that the printed ballot could be missing votes or contain votes printed for the wrong candidate. Auditors and recounters are helpless to detect misprinted ballots because they have no way to know what the actual selections were. Only the voter can notice if that happens.

The problem is that touchscreen-using voters don’t review their printed ballots naturally, as hand-marking voters do. They need to be instructed or they will not do it. For example, both the cities of Madison and Milwaukee make heavy use of BMDs, but neither city instructs voters to verify the ballots. During the November 2020 election in those cities, I observed around 200 voters at six polling places as they used BMDs in early voting. Not one verified their printed ballot. If misprogramming or malfunction caused those BMDs to print any incorrect votes, no one will ever know and the true votes are lost forever.

To ensure that all Fulton ballots were voter-verified, organizers set up a ‘verification station’ between the printer and the tabulator, where a poll worker intercepted every voter and reminded them to read their ballot and make sure it was correct. With only two races on the ballot, every one of the 398 voters was willing and able to do that. 

But even with 100% voter verification, the Fulton event showed how election officials might allow voters to use a hacked BMD all day in a Wisconsin polling place. Four of the Fulton voters—slightly over 1 percent—noticed and reported incorrect votes. In each case, the voter and poll worker immediately assumed it was voter error—with no effort to rule out machine malfunction. But was it? Probably, but no one will ever know.

In contrast, managers with a passing level of quality-assurance expertise would not simply assume voter error, but would always be alert for misprinting BMDs. They would keep track of the number of voters reporting misprinted ballots; they would have decided ahead of time how many misprints would be considered indicative of a malfunctioning machine; and they would be prepared to take that BMD out of service.

But few real-world election officials are acquainted with real-world quality-assurance principles. Wherever BMDs are used in Wisconsin, the assumption is as it was in Fulton—to blame voter error for every noticed problem. If ever, say, 10% or more of the BMD-using voters at a polling place report misprinted ballots, election officials have no backup or recovery plans. Managers can choose to respond to signs of trouble; they can choose to respond in an improvised ineffective way, or they can choose to ignore them.

No technology, including ElectionGuard, can fix that. It’s not a problem with the technology; it’s a weakness in the management practices.

A separate issue, which this blog has covered before, is the risky practice of encoding votes in a way that prevents voters from verifying them no matter how closely they study their ballots. ElectionGuard cannot help with that, either. That problem can be corrected only by redesigning the ballots so that the tabulators count the same recorded data that the voters verify, and vice-versa.

The tabulator will count the votes based on the information encoded in the QR code,
not the text the voter is able to verify. If an audit or recount using the votes recorded in the text produces different results than the results the tabulators produced using the votes recorded in the QR codes, and voter verification was not witnessed and documented by poll workers, no one has any way to tell whether the text or the QR code is correct.

We will not be able to secure election results until American voters and officials recognize that it is the officials’ responsibility—not Benaloh’s, not the vendors’, not the voters’, not the candidates’, not the lawyers’—to detect and correct any miscounts. 

But it will not be easy to get election officials to accept that responsibility. Whether from naivete or a willful desire to avoid buck-stops-here responsibility, election officials are happy to accept the vendors’ vision that technology can, all by itself, protect elections.  

At the Fulton demonstration, I asked both the county clerk and the town clerk why they were willing to cooperate with Microsoft in demonstrating ElectionGuard. What did they see as its potential benefits?  

Like election officials everywhere, neither attempted to hide her faith that the voting equipment will always produce accurate results—they consider that faith a virtue. As a result, they are uninterested in solutions that allow them to detect and correct electronic miscounts because, through their eyes, that risk does not exist.

Instead, their answers focused on two other things: First, encouraging voters to trust the computers as unwarily as they do, and second, reducing their workload. County Clerk Lisa Tollefson told me her reason for hosting the demonstration was that she is “always interested in changes that might make the clerk’s job easier,” — not the answer you’d get from County Clerk Sullenberger.

What about voter confidence? For better or worse, actual security and voter confidence are separable. True security does not always create voter confidence, and voters can be confident even when security is weak. Both are necessary for well-run elections.

ElectionGuard might increase confidence among those voters who say: “Just give me a receipt for my ballot, and I will believe the election is secure.” They are likely to find it fun to visit a website, plug in a personal ballot-tracking code, and receive the confirmation message “Your vote was counted.”

But the voters’ confidence might fall back to baseline when they realize that ElectionGuard won’t confirm for whom the vote was counted. The stated reason for that is to prevent coercion and the buying and selling of votes, quaint considerations in an age of growing reliance on absentee ballots. (Benaloh shared some good thoughts on ballot privacy – see Note 4.)

Technicians like Benaloh who understand why ElectionGuard is trustworthy will believe the confirmation message is reliable, but they are not the ones for whom such reassurance is intended.  Everyone else will be in the same boat they are in now, having to trust the technology and the programmers. My guess is that once ElectionGuard’s novelty wears off, we will be right back where we are now, with skeptical voters being skeptical and trusting voters trusting.


When America finally decides that it really, truly does want secure elections–not just the appearance of security, not just voter confidence–we will stop piling technology upon technology and will instead make sure that that the humans in the election cockpit are responsible and accountable. This is what we will do:  

  • On Election Day, every voter who can use a pen will create a reliable record of their selections by hand-marking a paper ballot.
  • Those ballots will be quickly counted by computers and preliminary results released as soon as possible, just as they are now.  
  • Promptly following Election Day, the officials—that is, the people who have the authority to correct any miscounts they find—will conduct outcome-verifying audits by hand-counting enough of a sample to confirm that the voting machines identified the correct winners. They will be prepared to move quickly to full hand counts in the unlikely event the audit finds the machines were wrong. Only when the computers and the hand counts agree on the correct winners will final election results be certified.

With that simple system—for which our election officials already have all the technology they need—any would-be malefactor will need two entirely different sets of means and opportunity to mess with the results—one to hack the voting machines and the other to manipulate the hand-counted audits. That will deter 99.9% of any manipulation and will detect and correct the rest before the wrong person is sworn into office.

(I’ll give Benaloh the last words; see note #5.)


Notes

#1 – Josh Benaloh graciously and carefully reviewed three drafts (3!) of this blog post, and provided detailed, constructive feedback. I am very grateful. Of course, any remaining errors are mine. There are a few areas where I did not make changes in response to his comments, either because we disagree or because his valid comment didn’t fit into the flow of the argument I wanted to make. These comments provide the basis for the following notes.

#2 – Benaloh wrote: “It is not the case that ElectionGuard ‘cannot detect hacks that made the BMD misinterpret input (that is, the voters’ touches).’ In Fulton, human-readable ballots were produced.  Any recording or counting of ballots that was inconstant with this human-readable ballot was detectable.  I do not disagree that, in the Fulton instantiation, a voter may fail to notice a misinterpretation that results in a printed ballot that does not match the voter’s selections, and I fully agree that this is a legitimate concern.  However, I think that there is an important distinction between “undetected” and “undetectable ” – especially in this context.”

#3 – Regarding the hosting of the website that voters would visit to use their verification codes, Benaloh wrote: “I see minimal value in an individual voter going to an official election website to confirm a verification code.  Instead, I would envision third parties such as political parties, media, and watchdogs hosting copies of the election record against which voters could query.  There is far more value to me in having my preferred candidate or media outlet confirm that my vote is correctly included in the tally than for me to receive that assertion from an election official whom I may not trust.  Of course, if I trust no one, I can confirm the entire record – including my vote – entirely on my own.  In the small Fulton pilot, we had no leverage to encourage independent entities to establish such services; so the only verifier available was the one hosted by the town.”

#4 – Benaloh wrote: “I see not revealing individual vote contents as far more than a ‘quaint‘ notion.  Secret ballots were not introduced in the U.S. until the late nineteenth century, and before that time elections were rife with vote selling and coercion.  It would be easy to provide verifiability if we were not concerned about ballot privacy.  We could just post verification codes and voter selections without bothering with any encryption.  Although it is very difficult to quantify, I’ve seen numerous anecdotes of coercion (especially spousal coercion) associated with routine vote-by-mail and absentee voting.  Of course, voting without the benefit of a poll is preferable to not voting at all; but I believe that the protections offered by in person voting are critical to election integrity.  Just as you see audited HMPBs as your gold standard, I view verifiable in-person voting as mine.”

#5 – Benaloh wrote: “I agree wholeheartedly with your general thesis – that ultimate control and responsibility should be in the hands of people.  ElectionGuard is not intended as a solution but rather as a tool that can be used by election officials and the public to help achieve accurate outcomes.  To push on your Sullenberger analogy, when his engines failed he was not devoid of technology and left entirely to his own devices; instead, he was able to exploit other technologies to help him bring his plane a safe landing.  A human was, and should be, in ultimate control; but the availability of tools and technologies helped the human in control to overcome adversity.  I regard ElectionGuard as nothing more than a tool which can – depending upon the people who use it – be an effective aid or a superfluous nuisance.
“As such, I would posit that your ideal election design – HMPBs followed by a rigorous human audit – is only enhanced by the inclusion of ElectionGuard.  This is not just a pointless inclusion in a process that is already as strong as possible.  We have a crisis of confidence in U.S. elections today.  We have millions of voters who do not believe election results.  They do not believe their election officials (e.g.., Brad Raffensperger) and they do not trust their equipment vendors (e.g., Dominion and Smartmatic).  As such, they will not trust the results produced by your ideal scenario.
“While I share few of the views of these detractors, I am somewhat sympathetic to the reason for their suspicion.  From their perspectives, they gave their ballots to people they don’t trust who used equipment they don’t trust to produce results they don’t trust.  If ElectionGuard had been included with the systems they used to vote, they would have had means to confirm the accurate counting of their votes – despite their lack of trust in the people and systems (potentially including a lack of trust in the ElectionGuard component).  I’m old enough to remember Reagan’s overused “trust but verify” admonitions.  With ElectionGuard, voters can verify without trust.  Without it, voters who do not trust their officials and equipment are left with nothing.”

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

No, you’re not crazy. It doesn’t make any sense.

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

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

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

The machine in question today is called the ExpressVote. Designed primarily for voters who cannot use a pen, BMDs require voters to use a touchscreen to indicate their votes. The computer then prints a marked paper ballot. Increasingly, BMDs are being promoted to voters without disabilities, particularly early voters.

Some BMDs print ballots that are nearly indistinguishable from hand-marked paper ballots. The ballots cast by voters with disabilities look just like everyone else’s. Both voters and tabulators look at the same input to read the votes.

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

But why?

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

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

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

Whatever the answer is, it must not make the barcoding BMDs look good.

The vendor’s defense attorney

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

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

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

That’s a textbook case of motivated reasoning. People wearing their thinking caps know that hackers don’t avoid any system that worked well during the manufacturer’s demo or the customer’s test.

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

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

Commissioner Mark Thomsen, in particular, took it upon himself to play defense attorney for the vendor. He acted insulted that voters had implied the barcoding BMDs are “hackable.” But that wasn’t the voters’ point. Of course the barcoding BMDs are hackable; all computers are. If Thomsen had been listening to understand rather than listening to refute, he would have understood the issue was not “hack-ability,” but that barcodes remove voters’ and officials’ ability to detect hacking.

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

Thomsen has more than enough intellect to understand that users need to be careful to feed computers only accurate information, so he understands why voters need to be able to tell whether their intended votes were faithfully recorded on their paper ballots.

The voter registration system, like the voting machines, processes information as binary code, but I have no doubt Thomsen would immediately see the problem if anyone suggested that WisVote render each voter’s registration record unreadable to the voter.

But for some reason he pretended he didn’t understand.

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

Voters shouldn’t give up.

The commissioners are neither stupid nor crooked, as far as I can tell. They do a fabulous job, for example, when they’re working on security for WisVote (the voter-registration system).

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

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

The other suggestion on the table is a lawsuit. Wisconsin law requires that voting systems “permit an elector to privately verify the votes selected by the elector before casting his or her ballot.” If the WEC admits the barcodes are the only marks ever counted as votes, they will be admitting that the BMDs don’t comply with the verifiability requirement. On the other hand, if the WEC argues that the voters can verify the human-readable text on each barcoded ballot, they will be stuck with no explanation of why that text is never counted as votes. Therefore, if we can find a lawyer willing to defend election security and voters, we could make an argument that barcoding BMDs are already illegal in Wisconsin. If the Commission wants to build voter confidence and enhance security, it will adopt this line of reasoning even without a lawsuit.

About those Russians…

In the past two weeks, three reporters have asked me to comment on Russian interference in US elections. Do I believe the Russians interfered with the 2016 election? Do I think they will try in 2020? And my least favorite: Do I think Russians are the worst threat to the voting machines?

I’ll answer the ‘worst’ question first: What the hell does it matter?  All threats are threats. Will it be a boring news story if our election is stolen by a Canadian anarchist living in his grandmother’s basement, or by a random computer glitch?

I’ll tell you what the worst threat is. It’s the threat that is literally the sum total of all other threats. Wisconsin county clerks are STILL not using the only safeguard effective against every voting-machine threat including the Russians: Using our paper ballots in prompt, routine, hand-counted audits that verify the correct winners.

The simple truth should be obvious. It is ridiculous to allow any computers to make any big decision unless you have a reliable way to detect and correct serious computer errors.  

Can you think of any other government agency that relies on computers and doesn’t have some way to notice if the computer screws up a big operation? No, you cannot. There isn’t one. Only election officials trust their computers that blindly, and demand our trust, too.

When Wisconsin’s county clerks declare election results final without verifying the correct winners, they are allowing computer programmers to pick the candidates who will govern us.1 They don’t supervise these programmers. They don’t know even know who or where they are.2

As to the other questions:  I don’t know whether the Russians or anyone else tampered with the voting machines in 2016 and 2018. No one does.

We don’t know because Wisconsin election officials didn’t check. 3 How is that not scandal enough?

Wisconsin’s election officials just seal our paper ballots on Election Night and leave them sealed until it’s time to destroy them two years later. No one ever knows if the paper ballots tell a different story than the computer tapes.

And I don’t know whether Russian criminals are planning to mess with the voting machines in 2020. I know that it is wise to assume they are. Most importantly, I know it will be criminally negligent if our county clerks make no effort to detect and correct any hacks that might get by the security system.

Call your Wisconsin County Clerk today and say: “Surely you understand that you cannot guarantee the security of our voting machines. Too much is outside your control. The only thing you can secure is the election results, and you can do that only by using our paper ballots in hand-counted audits during the county canvass to make sure you certify only the correct winners. Get busy now on developing audit procedures for the 2020 elections.”

– – –

1 A few Wisconsin county officials claim they “program their own voting machines” and imply that provides security. They don’t, and it doesn’t.
The county clerks ‘program’ the machines only in the sense that you ‘program’ a new cell phone with your personal address book and settings. If any are messing with the actual tabulation software, they are breaking federal law. Truth is, these county officials rely on the voting-machine company in the same way you rely on Samsung, Apple, or Nokia.

2 Example: In 2016, election-security advocates noticed that Dominion—the nation’s second-largest voting machine company, which counts many Wisconsin votes—was recruiting programmers in Serbia. The company’s official response was: “Like many of America’s largest technology companies, which develop some of the software for their products in places like Asia, India, Ireland and the Mideast, some of our software development is undertaken outside the U.S. and Canada, specifically, in Serbia, where we have conducted operations for 10 years.”

3 In the 2016 recount, half of Wisconsin’s presidential votes were “recounted” only by running the ballots back through voting machines programmed by the same people who programmed them for Election Day. These were the ballots in the state’s largest counties (except Dane)–the counties most at risk of hacking.
In the half that was hand-recounted, the recount found that more than 1 in every 170 votes had originally been miscounted. These errors were not deliberate and affected both major-party candidates equally. As a result, they did not change the outcome and the news media didn’t report it.
But notice this: even when that many votes had been miscountedup to 30% in some individual wardscounty clerks did not notice it in their regular canvass. They detected the incorrect vote totals only when forced to check their work with a recount. Unless our county clerks adopt routine audits, the same will happen when hackers put the Election-Night results outside Wisconsin’s microscopic recount threshold (0.25%). There won’t be a recount and the hackers will have successfully pulled off their crime.

Projected Ballot Counting

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.

2.  Accuracy.

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.

3.  Speed.

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.

4.  Transparency.

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.

A pdf document containing step-by-step instructions is here.

What might a recount discover?

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.)

But once a ballot has been delivered, it can still be rejected on several grounds.

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.  

I wish you had seen this.

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.

Wisconsin County Clerks Association doesn’t wanna.

Posted by Karen McKim · November 25, 2018 10:31 PM

No city treasurer would refuse to check the accuracy of property-tax bills. 
No county executive would release a report on annual expenditures without double-checking its accuracy.

Most local officials don’t need anyone to pass a law telling them to check their work.  They accept that as a basic managerial responsibility.

But the Wisconsin County Clerks Association is officially on record: They don’t want to.

And their work product is our election results.

The WCCA statement came in response to the Wisconsin Elections Commission’s September announcement that they were considering two election-security measures.

The Commission’s first proposal involved the only accuracy-checks the Commission has authority to order: audits of individual voting machines by municipal (not county) clerks. These audits are better than nothing, but they are limited to November elections in even-numbered years and check only a few random voting machines without confirming the winners in any race.

The Commission was considering ordering more machines audited than in previous years and requiring the audits to be completed before election results are declared final.

The Commission’s second proposal would move Wisconsin slightly in the direction of national election-security standards. The Commission was considering encouraging county clerks to perform audits of the type that if done widely, might confirm that Election-Night results had identified the right winner and enable clerks to correct the results if they had not. 

WCCA’s response was swift, naïve, and irresponsible.  The county clerks didn’t want the Commission to require, or even encourage, the county clerks to perform genuine election audits.

Perhaps sensing they are defending the losing side in a national trend (they are), the county clerks also described how they want to restrict this election safeguard:

  • They don’t wanna check accuracy until after they have certified final election results.
  • They don’t wanna check accuracy for any but the top race on the ballot.
  • And they want the State to pay extra if it even suggests they check accuracy.

I’m not making that up. The organization’s memo to the Wisconsin Elections Commission is reproduced, verbatim, below.

About delaying audits until after certification: The WCCA wrote that our paper ballots “should be treated like evidence and remain undisturbed” until after the clerks have certified the results. Join me in a prayer that the Trial Judges Association doesn’t have the same idea about the proper use of evidence. Imagine our courts refusing to look at evidence until after they’ve reached their verdict. 

About auditing only the top race on the ballot: The WCCA wants to audit only the top race on the ballot, ever. This could be restated: “If you force us to protect the US Senate election, we will refuse to protect the Governor’s race.” Hackers are delighted to know ahead of time which races will be protected, and which will be on an honor system.

About making the state pay extra for accuracy: The WCCA clearly rejected the idea that accuracy is a normal managerial responsibility by demanding they be paid extra for it. Imagine a parks manager telling the county budget manager: “Here’s a statement of the user fees we collected. If you want me to make sure it’s right, you’ll need to pay extra.”

Straight-out lie: In a final Trumpian flourish, the memo’s author blatantly misrepresented the findings of a study by MIT, Harvard, and the UW Madison researchers (Learning from Recounts, 2017). The WCCA memo claimed the researchers had declared that “hand counts of election results are inherently inaccurate.” Compare that to the researchers’ actual words:

“…careful hand counting in a recount is the gold standard for assessing the true vote totals — in large part because of the greater focus on a single contest, more deliberate processing of ballots, and careful observation by campaign officials and other interested parties….”

 *  *  *

Wisconsin statutes give the buck-stops-here responsibility for election results’ accuracy to the county clerks, and to no one else. Municipal clerks cannot verify results in federal, state, and county races; they have access to the ballots from only their own city, village, or town. The state elections agency is the legal custodian of no ballots at all; has only a few days after county certification before they must certify; and has no statutory authority to question results a county has certified.

We must insist the county clerks fulfill their responsibility. They have the paper ballots. They have the time. Modern election-audit practices would allow them to verify a few races on the ballot in just two or three days, while statutes allow them at least two weeks before they must certify the election.  The only cost would be the hand-counters’ time at $10 or $12 an hour—a tiny fraction of the county’s elections-administration budget.  They could randomly select just a few races for verification—just enough to deter election thieves in the races most liable to attract their interest.

And yet, collectively, they refuse.

Update: The Commission wisely ignored the WCCA’s whining and voted unanimously to encourage county clerks to start auditing during their canvass. And as the WCCA memo states, a few county clerks have begun voluntarily to incorporate hand-counted audits into their routine canvass procedures.

Every county clerk in Wisconsin received a memo on October 4, 2018 explaining the current nationwide move to election auditing and providing the clerks with instructions on how to get started.  

Only voters, though, can make it happen. Voters who care about election security should contact their county clerk to find out whether their votes in future elections will be protected with hand-counted audits during the county canvass.  

If not, the next election on February 19 will provide an excellent opportunity for your clerk to begin developing routine election-audit practices, since it will likely be a low-turnout election. Your county clerk has plenty of time before February to learn about the various methods of checking accuracy and work out his or her local procedures.

Insist on it.  

Wisconsin could have real election audits in November!

Just a few tweaks to WECs’ audit policy could make Wisconsin’s November 2018 elections the most secure since we started counting our votes with computers.

July 24, 2018  — There’s still time before the November 2018 elections for the Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC) to put a patch on the state’s biggest, most dangerous election-security hole. Up to now, local election clerks haven’t been checking the voting machines’ Election-Day accuracy before the certify election results. They could be doing that easily, quickly, and cheaply.

To audit voting machines’ November 6 output, neither WEC nor the local clerks need to spend an extra penny over what they already have budgeted for that election. The WEC has to change only one policy at their September 25 meeting.

But voters have to speak up–now. We must tell the WEC to revise their policy regarding the voting-machine audits for 2018, and order those audits to be completed in every county before election results are declared final. The WEC can be reached at (608) 266-8005 or by e-mail at elections@wi.gov.

THE PROBLEM

 We have paper ballots. And local officials have up to two weeks after each election to review (‘canvass’) them to make sure the results are correct before they declare the official winners (‘certify’).

But Wisconsin election clerks seal them in bags on Election Night. During their review, they look at the poll tapes, but leave the ballots sealed. Then they certify. They swear the winners into office. Twenty-two months later, they destroy the ballots.

Perpetually sealed paper ballots do not deter hackers; they protect them.

About half the states require officials to do at least a little auditing of computer-calculated Election-Day results before they certify. But in Wisconsin, state law merely allows, but does not require, accuracy checks.

When I ask county clerks why they don’t check Election-Day accuracy, I get answers like, “If we had to count votes manually, that would defeat the purpose of using the machines,” and “If these machines were capable of miscounting, the State wouldn’t let us use them.” And “We did a recount before and didn’t find that election had been hacked.” Basically, the people who manage our voting machines don’t believe they can be hacked. Or that they can malfunction. Or that humans sometimes make programming errors.

We can’t have kind of naiveté among our voting-machine managers. 

THE SOLUTION

Since 2006, Wisconsin statutes have required the state elections agency to order voting-machine audits following November elections. That law, section 7.08(6) of the statutes, also orders local governments to do any audits the WEC tells them to do.

As is typical for laws like this, the statute leaves the details to the bureaucrats. How many voting machines to audit? When to audit? How to select the sample? Those decisions are left to the state elections agency.

But state elections officials have, before this year, denied the risk of an Election-Day hack. They were so confident, they didn’t think anyone needed to look for it. So they have never ordered the type of audits that would protect final election results from hackers. 

But times have changed, and awareness of the complex risks–not limited to Russian hackers–has grown. WEC will be tweaking their voting-machine audit instructions soon, as they always do shortly before November general elections, and we voters have got to make sure they do it right this time.

We must demand two things.

First, the 2018 audit instructions need to tell local officials “Finish the audits during the county canvass so that you can correct any hacks or errors you might find.”

From 2006 through 2012, the State told local officials to wait to check accuracy until after they had certified the results. In 2014, state elections board members ordered their staff to stop prohibiting on-time audits. But they have never ordered timely audits—they merely stopped prohibiting them.

Second, we must demand that the WEC order audits of at least one voting machine in each county. More would be better, of course, but they’ve budgeted for only 100 voting-machine audits, and Wisconsin has 72 counties. So they can do this.

The sample selection method used in previous years is too odd to explain here. It has to do with making sure the sample contains five of each make and model of voting machine. The critical fact is that it has always left some counties out.

Wisconsin’s voting machines are, in all but a few counties, programmed at the county level. For the federal, state, and county races, the same vote-counting code is copied onto all the voting machines in a county. So there’s a good chance you could deter hackers by randomly selecting one machine in each county.

The best audit would, of course, include enough ballots to produce a statistically valid answer to “Are these the right winners?” But we’re down to the wire in 2018, and valid, respectable audits will probably need to wait until 2020. Until then, we need quick, better-than-nothing audits.

About cost: Funding for around 100 voting machine audits has already been budgeted–or should have been. Unless they increase the sample size, the WEC can order protective audits for the same price they are planning to pay for useless ones.

Just those two tweaks to WECs’ audit policy, and Wisconsin’s November 2018 elections will be the most secure in our state’s history since we started counting our votes with computers. They will be the first in which would-be hackers were put on notice: Any voting machine anywhere in the state might be randomly selected for an audit while there is still time to detect your mess and clean it up.

So:  We must tell the WEC to order voting-machine audits in every county, and that they be completed before November 2018 election results are declared final.

This topic will be on their September 2018 meeting agenda, and they have asked for voters’ input.

The WEC can be reached at (608) 266-8005 or by e-mail at elections@wi.gov.

Election Security in 2 steps: 1) Paper ballots; 2) Audits

May 31, 2018 —  Ask any Wisconsin official whether our elections are secure and you’ll get this answer: “Our voting machines are never connected to the Internet; elections administration is decentralized; and the machines’ designs were approved by the federal and state governments.”

Go ahead—call your county clerk and ask. That is the answer you’ll get. He or she sincerely believes those three safeguards protect Wisconsin elections. 

Today, a consortium of national election-integrity groups released a new report: Securing the Nation’s Voting Machines: A Toolkit for Advocates and Election Officials

Here’s how many of the Wisconsin election officials’ three favorite safeguards made the list recommended by the national authorities: None.

Here’s why not:

  • Voting machines are and always will be programmed by fallible, corruptible humans. Anyone who develops or loads the software can manipulate the vote totals without the Internet.
  • You could hack into only one or two big counties’ voting machines and swing a statewide election. In fact, county control of the voting machines might make hacking easier by increasing the number of vulnerable entry points. Besides, it’s not really the local clerks who manage the machines anyway. It’s three companies: Command Central, Dominion, and the biggest one, ES&S, which supplies the software that counts about 2 of every 3 Wisconsin votes.
  • Federal and state approval of the voting machines’ original design cannot secure the machine that counts your votes. The software was copied and updated dozens of times before it reached  the machine in your polling place. No one ever inspects or approves the software that actually counts your votes.

What does protect elections: Paper ballots and audits.

Wisconsin has paper ballots, but not a single county clerk—not one—looks at those ballots before declaring election results final.

As long as our ballots are packed up on Election Night and kept under seal until they are destroyed 22 months later, Wisconsin elections are no safer than if we were using paperless touchscreen machines.

That’s where Wisconsin’s decentralized elections can help to protect our elections. State law gives every county clerk two weeks after a general elections—and more if they request it—to review the Election-Night results to make sure they are correct. The county clerks and their boards of canvass are free to adopt any review method they choose—it’s up to them.

Any county or municipal clerk could, at any time he or she chooses, open the ballot bags and conduct a legitimate audit. It would be harder for municipal clerks, because they have only a week for review, and they certify only local races anyway. But county clerks have plenty of time to audit, and they certify the state and federal races—the ones most likely to be hacked.

Call your county clerk today and educate them. Tell them that the three safeguards they rely on are not really safeguards at all. Tell them to start—NOW—planning how they will verify the voting machines’ Election-Day accuracy after future elections. If your county clerk doesn’t know how, refer them to  Securing the Nation’s Voting Machines: A Toolkit for Advocates and Election Officials, which has a good list of pointers and resources. Write to your local newspaper to make sure they cover this story.

Then, keep calling your county clerk until you get the answer Wisconsin voters deserve: “Yes, we will make sure your votes were counted correctly before we declare election results final.”

Wisconsin has an election security problem. It’s not the Russians.

May 18, 2018 —  Forget about whether Russians hacked election computers in 2016. We’ve got a bigger problem, and not much time to fix it. The November elections are less than six months away.

When the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC) talk about “election security”, they talk only about the voter-registration system. WEC operates that system, and DHS can monitor it. 

But the vote-counting system is separate. It resides on no computer that either of them can control, monitor, or inspect. It was outside their range of vision in 2016, and it’s outside their vision now. They don’t talk about voting-machine security because they don’t know. 

Wisconsin’s vote-counting computers are controlled, protected, and monitored by our local election clerks and by three companies—ES&S, Dominion, and Command Central. 

That’s all. No one else.

Local election clerks have exactly the level of IT sophistication you think they do. County clerks send our vote-counting software off to Nebraska or Colorado or Minnesota to be reprogrammed for each new election, with no way to notice if it comes back carrying malicious code. A few counties use an application supplied by those companies to reprogram the software themselves. They put a plastic seal on it when they’re done.

Wisconsin’s local election clerks will happily leave a service technician alone with a voting machine or the county’s election-management computer, with no way to notice if he installs malicious code or a wireless communications card. They put a plastic seal on the voting machines for Election Day.

Go ahead—ask them. They seal the software. They seal the machines. They seal the paper ballots that they could use—but don’t—to check the machines’ Election-Day accuracy.

And what about where the real danger lies—within the voting-machine companies? How well does their security guard against external hackers and corrupt insiders?

The companies themselves might not understand IT security.  Professor Aviel Rubin of the Johns Hopkins University Information Security Institute checked with the major American voting-machine companies before the 2016 elections and discovered none employed “even one full-time trained expert in computer security.

Congress, too, has been frustrated in its attempts to get straight answers about the companies’ security practices.  When Congressman Ron Wyden tried to get answers from ES&S, he didn’t get a response from anyone with ‘security’ in their job title. Instead, a Senior Vice President for Governmental Relations replied, saying “At ES&S, security is the responsibility of not just one, but all who elect to work for our company.”

This governmental-relations expert reassured Rep. Wyden that ES&S had asked DHS “if they had knowledge of any such security issues involving ES&S to which they responded that they did not.” Well, whew.

ES&S—this company where every employee handles IT security and yet the vice president has to ask DHS to find out whether they’ve had a security breach—is the largest supplier of voting machines to Wisconsin. Just one of their machines—the DS200—counts more than 60% of Wisconsin’s votes, including votes from Milwaukee, Dane, Waukesha, and La Crosse Counties.

We cannot make the voting machine companies hire IT security staff before we elect a governor and a US senator in November.

And we cannot make our local election officials into IT sophisticates, ever.

But we can put an end to the honor system. That is, we can force our local election officials to use the paper ballots to detect and correct any miscounts before they declare election results final. 

Our local election officials are the legal custodians of the paper ballots. They can unseal them anytime to count votes and make sure the voting machines counted right.  At any time before the 2018 midterms, our local election officials could learn about results-audit practices already in use in other states and bring them to Wisconsin.

Do these three things today:

  1. Contact WEC. Tell them to exercise leadership in getting county clerks to audit election results during the canvass. Tell them to use some of the federal HAVA funds; they’ll know what that is.
  2. Contact your county clerk. Say you want the county canvass to make sure the voting machines identified the right winners before they certify the election results. If they don’t know how, tell them to contact the Election Verification Network or the Verified Voting Foundation.
  3. Contact your local newspaper editor. Tell him or her that you want to see local journalism take a sober look at voting-machine security right here in Wisconsin—and that doesn’t mean writing about plastic seals.