Up to now, the Wisconsin Elections Commission’s interest in elections security has focused on the voter-registration system (WisVote), rather than the vote-tabulation system (the voting machines). When the Commission has paid attention to concerns about voting-machine security, it typically has been for only as long as it took commissioners to ask the vendors “Tell us how to refute these concerns.”
The Commission has also made a habit of limiting its own information sources. Earlier this year when they felt the need for advice on election security, they convened an Election Security Advisory Panel consisting entirely (I swear I’m not making this up) of county and municipal clerks. That was a revealing indication of the Commission’s level of interest in seeking advice from anyone else … say, disinterested IT professionals or highly interested, well-informed voters.
But the Commission’s interest in voting-machine system security may be showing signs of life.
Last week, the Commission announced the formation of a new Elections Security Council of “federal, state and local partners” that will “formalize collaboration between these key groups and the public to improve communication and maximize election security.”
As usual, the Commission’s idea of “key groups” is limited to government officials. It’s possible their idea of ‘communication’ remains limited to outgoing messages to reassure voters that all is well.
Oh, well, it’s a start. Give the new council a chance to join the fight for voting-machine security. We’ll know more after their first meeting on October 16, when they will discuss whether and how they want to involve any other stakeholders.
Realistically, though, it’s possible this new council will — as the Commission itself has always done — focus its efforts exclusively on the voter registration system (WisVote) rather than voting-machine system security. Nothing in the press release specifically indicated the Commission is looking to expand its election-security efforts beyond WisVote.
Nevertheless, just in case this council represents an awakening, its members should know what a secure tabulation system would look like.
So here’s a gift to the new Elections Security Council: A list of what would be in place if our voting-machine system was secure.
Most of the elements listed below are common sense, not rocket science. It’s just sensible, prudent management of a highly critical IT system. Some elements are present for Wisconsin. Others are missing. State and local election officials cannot create all the missing elements, which means they need to look for ways to make up for their absence.
If any members of the new council are curious to know which of these elements are in place and which are missing, multiple nationally–respectedelection–securityauthorities stand ready to share critical insights. Those experts’ interest in security is unaffected by financial interests and by any reflexive defense of the status quo.
In a secure vote-tabulation system:
Voting equipment manufacturers would…
Manufacture only those systems that are as secure as possible given current technology and customers’ budgets.
Manufacture only systems that use or produce ballots that voters have verified as accurate records of their intent, and that allow local officials to verify the votes were tabulated accurately.
Cooperate fully with the federal Department of Homeland Security monitoring of the companies’ own computers and security practices.
Cooperate fully with state and local governments’ security requirements.
The federal government would…
Promulgate strong, clear, and frequently updated regulations for secure, auditable voting systems, and for the independence of private testing labs.
Actively and rigorously apply those regulations when certifying new systems or updates.
Actively monitor and enforce compliance with those regulations.
The state government would…
Through law and regulations, implement strong security and auditability requirements for voting systems used in this state, and rigorously enforce those through certification.
Provide guidance and technical assistance to local governments related to voting-machine system security, so that vendors are not their customers’ only source of information and advice.
Adopt laws and regulations for local governments’ voting-system security practices.
Monitor local compliance with required voting-system security practices, and have the ability to correct poor practices.
Coordinate strong post-election tabulation audits, involving all the counties’ boards of canvassers, that verify the correct winners in all statewide races before certification.
County government election officials would…
Follow federal and state requirements for securing county elections-management system hardware and software.
Have professional IT staff capable of and assigned to working with the voting-system vendor on security-related matters. (If not county staff, an independent contractor who is unaffiliated with voting-machine sales and service.)
On Election Night, obtain electronic election records (including CVR and digital ballot images) from municipalities. Maintain strong internal control and to support voter confidence and ballot security, post digital ballot images to the internet within 24 hours of poll closing.
During the county canvass, use the paper ballots to verify that the computers identified the correct winners. If problems are found, correct results before certification.
Between elections, audit various election-security practices and take action to improve whenever any issues are found.
Municipal government election officials would…
Maintain year-round strong internal control of marked and unmarked ballots; other election records (e.g., CVR, digital ballot images); and voting-system hardware and software.
Maintain equipment according to manufacturer recommendations. Routinely and reliably inspect equipment inside and out for signs of tampering or malfunction; take action to correct any issues noted.
Conduct strong pre-election testing of both tabulators and ballot-marking devices; take action to correct any problems noted. Make sure all voting machines are equally reliable and operable.
Train election workers in how to maintain security; how to notice trouble signs; how to document and respond to trouble signs or lapses.
Monitor performance of elections workers to ensure that no bad habits develop, that any departures from standard procedures are quickly noted and corrected.
Volunteer to serve as poll workers and hand-counters
Pay attention to election security issues,
getting neither too excitable nor too complacent.
Be willing to hold their local officials
accountable for verified accurate election results.
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.
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.
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
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.
I’ve observed more than two dozen of these tests over the years. The ones I observed this week were typical. Even if you’re not an IT professional, I’ll bet you can pick out why these tests don’t protect Election-Day results from hacking—whether the hacker is an Internet cyber-crook or a corrupt voting-machine company insider.
Here, try it. Start by predicting what the hacker might try to do. First, do you think the hacker would make the malicious code miscount every single vote or only some votes?
You guessed ‘only some,’ and experts agree. When a blue-ribbon election-security task force convened by the Brennan Center for Justice worked out how a hacker would steal a statewide race in the imaginary State of Pennasota, they calculated that no hacker would likely alter more than 7.5% of the votes, or a little more than 1 in every 13. So if you want to detect hacking, your set of fake ballots—your ‘test deck’—should contain enough ballots to give each candidate at least 13 valid votes.
But Wisconsin municipal clerks typically create test decks with only one vote for each candidate—enough to catch only hacks that affect every single vote.
Second, do you suppose the hacker might instead allow the machines to count votes accurately all day, and then simply flip the candidates’ vote totals at the end of the day to give his guy the biggest total? You probably guessed yes, he might. So you would need to create a test deck that has a winner in each race, a different number of votes for each candidate.
Wisconsin municipal clerks’ pre-election test results typically contain a lot of ties–the same number of votes for each candidate in each race. Those test decks would not detect any vote-flipping hacks.
Finally, would the hacker’s malicious code kick in whenever the machine was turned on, or only on Election Day? This one is easy. Hacks would never trigger on any day other than Election Day.
This is the fatal flaw of pre-election testing as a safeguard against hacking. Hackers can program their code to trigger only when the calendar says it’s Election Day…or only when ballots are inserted at a rate typical of Election Day…or only when the machine has been operating continuously for more than eight hours…or only on some other telltale sign that real votes, not test votes, are being counted. As the Brennan Center Task Force report put it, trying to use tests like these to detect hacking would create a constantly escalating arms race between election officials trying to make the test look like a normal Election Day and hackers finding new ways to detect a test situation.
Many of Wisconsin’s pre-election tests do not hide the fact that the machines are running in test mode, not Election-Day mode. The photo at right is a close-up of the voter-verifiable paper trail from an AVC Edge voting machine, programmed by Command Central, being tested in Juneau County before the August 14, 2018 primary. Notice that the voting machine printed “PRE-LAT PAPER RECORD” at the top of the ballot. ‘LAT’ is the computer professionals’ term for “logic and accuracy testing,” a basic routine whenever software has been updated. (I don’t know why Command Central calls it “PRE-LAT”.)
This machine clearly knows it is counting test ballots, not real ones. Operating in test mode doesn’t render the test useless for things like catching innocent programming errors. But:
It is humbug for election clerks to fool themselves, or to fool the public, into thinking these pre-election tests provide any protection against hacking.
If we want to stop being fed humbug, we have to stop falling for it. If your local election officials tell you:
“Election results are protected by keeping the machines unconnected from the Internet,” tell them that you know that they have no idea about what happens to the software before it comes into their control.
“Election results are protected by federal and state certification,” tell them you know that the software has been copied and updated many times since it was certified, and that no one has ever or will ever inspect the software that will count your votes on Election Day.
“Election results are protected by the audits we already do,” tell them that audits completed only after the canvass cannot possibly protect results they have already declared final (‘certified’).
The solution: Contact your county election office. In Milwaukee County, that’s the Elections Commission; in other counties, it’s the county clerk. Tell them: “This voter is done with humbug. I know that one and only one safeguard can protect our final election results. Use our paper ballots to detect and correct any electronic miscounts before you declare election results final. Start this November.”
Don’t expect your county official to be stubborn; several are already planning to check accuracy before they certify the November results as final. Find out if yours is one.
But if your county officials are not now planning to begin auditing, don’t accept excuses. They got a memo on August 1, 2018 from the Wisconsin Elections Commission that made it clear: “A post-election audit is a tool that could be implemented to confirm that results have been tabulated accurately,” and “post-election audits of the results may be conducted prior to certification of the canvass.” The Commission even gave them basic instructions they can follow.
No more humbug about election security. Tell your county officials today: “Time’s up. Pre-certification audits. This fall.”
You can also help by donating to help Wisconsin Election Integrity get the no-humbug word out to voters, officials, and media through our 2018 publicity campaign.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
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.
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:
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.
Contactyourlocalnewspapereditor. 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.
March 31, 2018 — Being a normally flawed human, I cannot resist starting this blog post with “As we have been saying for six years…”, Wisconsin’s “failure to carry out post-election audits that test the accuracy of election outcomes leaves the state open to undetected hacking and other Election Day problems.”
In speaking about Wisconsin, the report concludes: “To protect its elections against potential attack by sophisticated nation-states seeking to interfere in U.S. elections, Wisconsin should adopt robust post-election audits that have binding effect on election results.”
CAP researchers picked up on a feature of Wisconsin elections that in-state commentators have missed:
Problems with Wisconsin’s election security, along with possible solutions, are not visible unless you look beyond the state level and into the counties and municipalities.
Our state-level agency, the Wisconsin Elections Commission does not control the voting machines. They control only the systems that manage voter registration (WisVote) and that compile already-tabulated election results (the Canvass Reporting System, or CRS).
But the technology that counts Wisconsin’s votes is owned and operated by counties and municipalities–not the State.
It is the local clerks, not the WEC, who are responsible for pre-election protective security and for the managerial measures that would detect and correct any Election-Day miscounts.
Not only is pre-election security managed by non-IT professionals, Wisconsin’s entire vote-counting system lacks the ability even to detect miscounts, never mind correct them.
Wisconsin’s local election officials–bless their hearts–are not IT sophisticates. Asked about the threat of hacking, most will say something like what Sheboygan County Clerk Jon Dobson recently wrote to me: “The equipment is never connected to the Internet, (so) unless someone has figured out a way to hack through the unit’s power cord, our equipment is basically unhack-able.”
Clerks like Mr. Dobson are not being disingenuous. They genuinely believe that if they cannot see a way to hack the vote-tabulating technology, no one else can, either. Their trust in the voting-machine companies is complete and sincere.
For their education in IT security, Mr. Dobson and his colleagues rely almost entirely on the commercial reassurances of the voting-machine companies. They don’t seek the counsel of independent IT-security authorities who could explain the myriad number of ways an elections system can be compromised without Internet connection, particularly by insiders.
Wisconsin’s county clerks genuinely do not understand that elections software could be compromised by security lapses outside their vision or control–by the vendors, service companies, municipal clerks, and poll workers.
And as for Internet access, news hasn’t yet reached them from their counterparts in Pennsylvania, who found that a voting machine company had installed unauthorized remote access capability on their election computers without their knowledge–something that computer-security professionals had been warning of for years. Like the Wisconsin clerks, the Pennsylvania clerks had been blithely assuring reporters that voting machines were never connected to the Internet–without having checked. When I publicly asked him whether he ever checked Dane County’s machines for such unauthorized alterations, Clerk Scott McDonell said that the vendors had told him that would void the machines’ warranty so no, he doesn’t check. He is not fooling when he says he truly believes the machines to be so very secure that he can doesn’t have to check their accuracy before he declares election results final.
And that, fellow voters, is the level of IT naïvete that stands between motivated international hackers and our voting rights.
But we have to be realistic about what we can expect from local election officials. As Prof. Dan Wallach of the Rice University Computer Science Department explained, “You would not expect your local police department to be able to repel a foreign military power.”
What we canexpect of our local election officials–particularly our county clerks–is that they use the authority and resources already provided by Wisconsin law to manually check accuracy of the computer-tabulated vote totals before they certify election results final.
The only protection can come from using our paper ballots to check the machines’ Election-Day accuracy.
That’s the solution that 26 states already have in place, with varying degrees of rigor.
It’s the solution that we’ve been advocating for the past six years.
It’s the solution that the 2014 Presidential Commission on Elections Administration recommended.
And it’s the solution that the CAP report recommended for Wisconsin.
Wisconsin reporters and editors need to pick up on it now, too. They need to start asking county clerks the same hard questions about their security practices that they have been asking the WEC about theirs: How do you detect whether the technology worked as intended on Election Day? Do your security and recovery procedures meet national standards? What plans do you have in place for recovery if they fail?
Voters can ask, too. Pick up the phone. Call your county clerk. Get the facts right from him or her. Ask: “At the moment when you sign that certificate declaring the election results to be correct and true, what specifically have you done to verify that the voting machines counted correctly on Election Day?”
Among the 72 county election authorities in this state, not a one will answer: “I follow federal recommendations and conduct a valid post-election audit.”
Main point: Wisconsin’s elections officials have been telling themselves a simple story–“The only threat to election results is Internet hacking, so we can keep elections safe just by keeping the voting machines unconnected.”
There’s an equally simple–but more true–story they could be telling themselves: “We don’t have the power to prevent every type of miscount, but we can keep elections safe anyway by using the paper ballots to detect and correct miscounts, regardless of cause.”
February 21, 2018 — In a recent newspaper article, I wrote that election officials should check the accuracy of our computer-tabulated election results as routinely as city treasurers check our computer-tabulated property tax bills.
That proposal is uncontroversial. Every national election expert promotes routine audits. So do other authorities, such as the US Department of Homeland Security. When presented with the idea that election clerks should verify the right winners before they declare election results final, every voter responds with either “Well, duh” or a wide-eyed “You mean they don’t do that now?!?!”
Wisconsin election officials, however, think that all the rest of us are wrong about that. In response to my article, I received the following email from the county clerk in a mid-sized Wisconsin county:
“Good afternoon, Ms. McKim: Please tell me if a piece of Wisconsin certified equipment has ever been hacked, or how one could even attempt to hack said equipment. The equipment used in my county is never connected to the Internet. It’s not even connected to our county network. Unless someone has figured out a way to hack through the unit’s power cord, our equipment is basically unhackable.”
Except for that last word, my correspondent’s few facts are correct. It’s the same argument that county clerks have used for years. Let’s review a few additional facts. You won’t need to be an IT security expert or a Russian hacker to see the possibilities…
First, Wisconsin’s county clerks need to know that voters don’t want their votes miscounted for any reason–not hacking, not human error, and not machine malfunction. Even if we believe you that you’ve perfected the world’s only unhackable computers, that’s no reason to fail to check of any other type of miscount.
Hacking might be a risk, but mistakes and malfunctions are a reality. Our voting machines are operated by a lightly trained and lightly supervised temporary workforce. None get more than four days of on-the-job experience every year. Even the election managers—the municipal and county clerks—work only part-time on that task. The 2016 presidential recount—for most election officials, a once-in-a-career opportunity to check their work—revealed that more than 1 in every 170 votes were incorrectly certified in the original canvass—mostly because of human error.
And when it comes to tampering, they know that many insiders have both means and opportunity—even without an Internet connection. Private companies manufacture Wisconsin’s vote-counting computers, and independent service companies maintain them. Those companies do not allow anyone to inspect the software, updates, and patches they install.
And no one has the ability to enforce good security practices. No state or federal official oversees either the local officials’ or the companies’ internal security. If the computers used by the private companies to update the voting-counting software had poor security, no one but the companies and hackers would know.
Between elections, the voting machines themselves reside in storage rooms all around the county. They are also off limits to inspection. I once asked another county clerk if he had ever inspected them for unauthorized wireless communications chips—something professionals warn about. That clerk told me that such an inspection would void the machines’ warranty. (Update: See the first comment below. The day after I wrote this blog post, the New York Times reported that county clerks in Pennsylvania–who DID have their elections technology independently inspected–discovered that ES&S technicians had installed unauthorized remote communications capacity.)
My correspondent knows all that. And yet he proclaims, on faith, that the vote-counting software exists in a state of virginal purity as each Election Day dawns.
I don’t believe this county clerk is stupid. I’d bet my mortgage he would know better than to patronize a bank where managers employ only temporary staff; rely on antiquated equipment; refuse to audit unless a customer pays the cost of a full recount; and proclaim the ATMs are always accurate merely because they are not connected directly to the Internet.
And aside from his resistance to rigorous auditing, I see no signs he is corrupt. So what is he thinking?
Like most other normal human beings, he might not be thinking anything.
Walter Fisher, of the Annenberg School for Communication, has studied the question: Why does thinking explain so little of our behavior? He concluded we are guided more by narratives—stories we tell ourselves—than by logical reasoning.
The human brain is a marvelous organ, but continuously encounters more twists and turns than it can process with its reasoning faculties.
So it invents stories. Some are true, some are false. But all are oversimplified because that’s their function—to help our brains make simple sense of complexity, to help us feel we’re in control.
My correspondent’s story fits that description: “Only one thing can produce incorrect vote totals: Internet hacking. So if we just keep voting machines offline on Election Day, our elections will be safe from hackers.”
Human error, malfunction, and insider corruption would complicate this narrative, so they are excluded. Not mentioned. Not seen.
County clerks have reason to embrace that narrative. Election administration is only one of their jobs, and they have only a few staff. The workforce on which they depend consists mainly of people who are hired by and report to someone else: municipal clerks; temps hired by the municipal clerks; and county canvassers sent by the two major political parties.
The county clerks’ own education and experience tends to be clerical or political, not managerial or technological. And because the State Constitution assigns certain duties only to them—no one else—they’re on their own. They are elected officials without a manager who can train and coach them, or share the blame when something goes wrong.
Sensible voters need to help our election managers switch to a new narrative. It needs to be simple. It needs to be clear.
It needs to give them courage to face up to their responsibilities as prudent managers of elections technology. I propose this one:
“As local election officials, we have the paper ballots and we control the canvass procedures.
If we just use those to check that we’ve identified the right winners, our elections will be safe from every risk.”