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.

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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: “Don’t forget to check your work!”  They accept checking accuracy 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 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 have limited value. Not only are they limited to November elections in even-numbered years, but they also check only a few random voting machines, without confirming the right 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 second proposal would move Wisconsin slightly in the direction of national election-security standards. The Commission said it 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 give clerks the opportunity 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 share this 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’s message 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 race will be off limits, and which races will be on an honor system.

About making the state pay extra for accuracy: With this statement, the WCCA clearly rejected the idea that accuracy is  a normal managerial responsibility. Imagine a parks manager telling the county budget manager: “I signed off on this accounting of the user fees we collected. If you want me to make sure it’s right, you’ll need to pay extra.”

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….”

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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 that 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: Wisely, the Commission 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 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.