Racine County canvass certified huge miscounts–twice!

If an Elmwood Park poll worker had been grabbing the ballot from every twentieth voter and ripping it up, while county election officials looked on and did nothing, this result would have been pretty much the same.”

“The poll workers were not throwing out votes,” Racine voter Scott Farnsworth explained. “The problem is that county canvass officials have no process in place to notice or correct predictable electronic miscounts.”

Farnsworth participated in a hand count of ballots from last November’s presidential election, held at the Racine County Courthouse on November 14 and 15. County Clerk Wendy Christensen and county staff displayed the ballots to about two dozen volunteer vote-counters in response to Farnsworth’s open-records request.

The audit confirmed the group’s suspicions: More than 1,000 Racine County voters may have been silently disenfranchised because of election officials’ failure to check the accuracy of the computer-generated vote totals.

The Citizens’ Audit was necessary because on Election Day, the voting machines indicated a weirdly high percentage of ballots contained no presidential vote. This is called the ‘undervote’ rate. But within two weeks, the County Board of Canvass had certified those totals as final–without checking their accuracy.

“A few voters always decide to leave the race blank,” explained Karen McKim, coordinator of the statewide group, “but not one in twenty. Anyone could see that those results were flawed before looking at even one ballot.”

Yet a few weeks later, in the Wisconsin recount, the county officials did not actually recount the votes. They merely ran the ballots back through the machines, which had not been reprogrammed. Observers noticed the machines were not counting all the votes, and again the machines’ totals indicated suspiciously high undervote rates. But again the county officials certified the flawed results, again without checking their accuracy.

Organized by Wisconsin Election Integrity and financed by a successful GoFundMe campaign, the citizens’ audit counted votes from six wards.

The audit found that county-certified vote totals had missed 2.5% of the valid presidential votes across all six wards–1 in every 40 votes.

The highest error rate was in the City of Racine’s Ward 26, where election officials failed to count 6.1% of the votes, even during the recount. More than 1 in every 17 voters were disenfranchised in that ward. Detailed results are here, for each candidate and ward.

Wisconsin Elections Commission officials believe the voting machines failed to detect the votes because voters had marked ballots with types of ink that the machines could not detect. After other counties hand-counted the recount and discovered the high rates of missed votes, the WEC decertified the machines (prohibited their future use in Wisconsin) in late September.

County Clerk Wendy Christensen has not yet publicly explained why the county board of canvassers chose twice to certify the results as ‘correct and true’ without checking, despite the obviously suspicious number of missing votes.

“We needed the manual count to get the truth,” said Village of Pleasant Prairie voter Liz Whitlock, who was among the recount observers who could see the voting machines missing votes.

Racine municipalities are in the process of replacing the unreliable voting machines. However, new machines do not eliminate the need for routine accuracy checks. Any computer, including both new and old voting machines, is continuously at risk of producing flawed output. Threats include both sophisticated international hackers and more mundane problems such as human programming error and random computer malfunction.

“Other local government officials make a habit of checking their computers’ accuracy,” said Whitlock. “You don’t see citizen volunteers having to audit computer-tabulated property tax bills or county park receipts. Election officials need to accept similar routine responsibility for the accuracy of our computer-tabulated vote totals.”

What needs to be done–before November 2018!

Before the audit, Farnsworth had said, “The 2016 election is over and done. This is about our future elections.”

In Racine County, as in other Wisconsin counties, a county board of canvass bears responsibility for the accuracy of results in statewide races such as president. That board consists of the elected county clerk and an appointed representative from each of the two major parties.

Current state law leaves it to these county boards to select the procedures they will use to review and approve preliminary election results. Wisconsin’s county clerks could, without any legislative action, start immediately to check accuracy.

At a minimum, they should follow the Wisconsin Election Commission’s written advice to check to see whether “there is a large difference between the total number of voters and the votes cast” in the top-of-the-ballot race. WEC has already warned the county election officials that “a large drop off between these two numbers might signal a problem with the voting equipment.” Because WEC has no oversight responsibility for the elected county clerks, citizen observation at canvass meetings is critical to ensure that county officials begin to follow basic instructions.

But Wisconsin candidates and voters deserve more than the minimum that our county officials can get away with.

In Wisconsin and elsewhere, local election officials cannot effectively prevent electronic miscounts, including hacking. Lacking IT expertise and authority to maintain full control of the software, they must rely on others—primarily voting machine vendors and service technicians—to maintain security.

But in states that use paper ballots—including Wisconsin—local election officials can detect and correct any miscounted preliminary election results, even if they cannot fully protect the voting machines or their software. By checking the vote totals against the paper ballots, they can prevent any miscounts or fraud from ruining an election.

And that is just what election-administration authorities recommend they do. In August 2017, the US Elections Assistance Commission wrote, “Carefully conducted post-election audits mitigate error and check the accuracy of election results. Comprehensive and transparent post-election audits raise the level of public confidence in the electoral process.”

Outside Wisconsin, other states are moving rapidly ahead to implement effective election-verification practices. Wisconsin’s county clerks could implement more prudent canvass practices now, with no change in state law.

Wisconsin Election Integrity urges Wisconsin county clerks to adopt modern effective audit methods to catch and correct fraudulent or incorrect election results.

We encourage every Wisconsin voter to contact his or her municipal and county clerk to demand verification before election results are declared final.

Additional relevant information:

  • Wisconsin’s biennial voting machine audits, mandated by statute, are completed only after the identified winners have been sworn into office and do not include enough machines to verify any statewide outcomes. Those audits are designed to audit voting equipment, not election results.
  • Pre-election voting machine tests cannot prevent Election-Day miscounts, particularly those caused by electronic manipulation, which would be designed to flip or ignore votes only on Election Day.
  • The 2016 recount did not verify voting-machine accuracy for about half the ballots in the state. All the largest counties except Dane—including Milwaukee, Waukesha, Brown, Walworth, Washington, Rock, Racine, and Kenosha—‘recounted’ by running the ballots back through the voting machines. Even with only half the ballots actually recounted, county officials changed at least 17,681 votes between the results they originally certified as ‘correct and true’ and the results they certified after the recount.

 Here are links to more information about:

 Our hand count documented: In the 6 audited wards,
1 in every 40 presidential votes remained uncounted 
as county officials declared results final. 
Results for individual wards and candidates are here.

WEC acknowledges machines can miscount, decertifies a voting machine

September 26, 2017 —  There’s good news and there’s … no-worse-than-usual news.

The good news is that today, the Wisconsin Elections Commission did what no Wisconsin elections agency has done since the introduction of computerized vote tabulation: They decertified a voting machine, the Optech Eagle.

And they did it for the best of reasons: It wasn’t counting our votes reliably. Now that so many ballots are marked in voters’ homes, in all sorts of ink, the machine is “no longer meeting voters’ and officials’ expectations.”

This is good. Not perfect, but good. The vote was unanimous. The Commissioners didn’t debate whether the machine should be decertified, but how quickly.  They didn’t vote to decertify immediately, but they soberly considered that possibility. And they did adopt some immediate safeguards.

As of today, all municipalities using the Optech Eagle must either count mailed-in ballots by hand, or re-make (that is, copy over) them using ink that can be detected by the machines. And they must keep doing that until they replace the machines, no later than December 31, 2018. In addition, if any contest tabulated by an Optech Eagle is recounted, it must be by a hand count.

This decision had several good angles to it.

First, the Commissioners’ comments, specifically mentioning Racine County, indicated that they accepted as true the reports of Liz Whitlock and the other observers during that recount, even though Racine County officials have not yet acknowledged any problems.

Granted, it would have taken chutzpah for the Commissioners actively to deny that Racine miscounted both the election and the recount, given all the hard evidence of similar miscounts from other counties and the weirdly high undervote rates that county’s canvass signed off on.

But the culture of election officials, in Wisconsin and elsewhere, is to band together against concerned voters and, if not to deny their truth, at least ignore it.  But in the discussion today, I did not pick up one whiff of the get-these-troublesome-citizens-out-of-here attitude to which we’re so accustomed. Good work, Liz and the rest of the Racine team! The State hears you, even if your clerk doesn’t (yet).

Second, the instruction that any recount be conducted by hand shows more courage and commitment than I’ve seen from any public official in a while. Here’s why: If some county decides to contest that requirement, it’s likely that a court would decide that the WEC has no statutory authority to order a hand-counted recount. The Commissioners were aware of that when they voted, but went ahead anyway. Set aside the fact that recounts are a thing of the past in Wisconsin; I like the kind of leadership that says, “Let’s do the right thing and see if anyone tries to stop us.”

Third, the decision signifies a distinct break from the old Government Accountability Board’s attitude toward elections technology. The old GAB—both board and staff—seemed resistant to even the idea that voting machines could miscount. I remember talking with them about the Medford miscount, when misprogrammed machines ignored all straight-party ticket votes. About a third of that city’s votes in a presidential election were lost. GAB staff told me, with a pained expression, “You can’t blame that on the machines!”, as if I would hurt the machine’s feelings if it heard me say it needed to be audited. I can so easily imagine the old GAB Director Kevin Kennedy defending the Optech Eagle with such an argument.

But WEC Director Michael Haas and the Commissioners are willing to take a stand: A machine that cannot count a valid vote has got to go.

I know I may be giving WEC credit for understanding the obvious, but it is a change from the way they were talking only two years ago. And that’s good.

The no-worse-than-usual news is, well, unsurprising.

  • The staff analysis of decertification stressed cost and convenience for clerks above all other considerations—to the point where I sat there seriously trying to think of how we could frame the risk of election fraud as a cost issue.

  • No one ever has investigated or resolved the causes of the worst Optech Eagle miscount. The WEC is just guessing it was the wrong ink. In Marinette, three voting machines missed 9.6%, 26.5%, and 30.8% of the votes on the ballots they processed. It’s almost certain that ink had something to do with it, but if the voters marked their ballots at home, why did voters in one section of town use unreadable ink at more than three times the rate of another part of town? And to add to the mystery, the municipal clerk told me that most of the absentee ballots in all three precincts were in-person early voters who marked their ballots in her office. Why would she provide the wrong pen at all, never mind provide it at different rates to the voters from the different precincts? Finally, in the one municipality where WEC staff did do a serious investigation of the cause of an Optech Eagle miscount, they couldn’t pin it entirely on ink. Something else is going on with those machines, and remaking the ballots might not fix it. 

  • Director Michael Haas, on at least two occasions today, referred respectfully to our testimony, and clearly understood what we were saying. But when he spoke most directly to the prospect of future routine election audits, he called it a ‘legislative issue.’ To me, that revealed his perception that Wisconsin’s local election clerks will not agree to verify election results unless forced by law. He’s probably correct, but that’s pretty darn sad. Thank goodness few other public officials take the same attitude toward their work product.

  • In my oral testimony, I cited several instances in which county boards of canvass certified obviously incorrect vote totals. I also spoke of the hard fact that none ever verify the vote totals before they certify. Sure enough, like a patellar reflex, the municipal clerk who spoke next offered indignant testimony: “We do too care about accuracy,” though she offered no facts to back up that claim.

    The truth of her statement depends on what she means by ‘care.’ I don’t doubt that she “feels concern or interest.“ 

    But until she routinely verifies the vote totals before certifying them, she does not “exercise serious attention or effort to avoid damage or risk.”

    So, WEC’s attitude toward election accuracy is improving. But the local election officials still haven’t mastered Step 1: Accept that you have a problem.

WEC likely to decertify Optech Eagle – and we’re asking for more.

Inaccurate preliminary vote totals are not a problem–if miscountsare detected and fixed before election results are declared final. 
The problem is, as these incidents show, that Wisconsin’s local election officials 
are making no effort to detect and correct even obvious miscounts.
Have the hackers noticed that yet?

* * * 

September 21, 2017 —  Following December’s presidential recount, when county clerks reported corrected vote totals to the Wisconsin Elections Commission, they changed at least 17,681 votes from the totals they had previously reported.

Ward by ward, candidates sometimes got more votes, sometimes less. We don’t know the full number of miscounted votes, because if recounters both subtracted and added votes to one candidate’s total in a single ward, only the net change showed up in the revised totals.  Election researchers at the UW-Madison, Harvard, and MIT worked with the data and estimated that in the original results, more than 1 in every 170 votes had been miscounted. *

If you can think of a way to miscount a valid vote, it’s likely that somewhere a Wisconsin vote was miscounted like that.

The recount discovered hundreds of absentee ballots still in their envelopes, uncounted on Election Day.

Write-in votes had been treated with extraordinary carelessness. The recount discovered that 1 in every 7 of Evan McMullin’s voters had been disenfranchised in the original count. Typos had erased nearly half the votes in precincts in Oneida and Milwaukee Counties. Votes had been double-counted in Eau Claire County.

The miscounts in Marinette, Outagamie, and Racine Counties are of particular interest to those who wonder whether Wisconsin’s local election officials are attentive, prudent IT managers.

Those counties and others used a voting machine called the “Optech Eagle.” This was once the workhorse of Wisconsin elections, but it never could read votes unless they were marked in an ink that contained carbon.

It didn’t read non-carbon ink in 2016, either, when tens of thousands of voters submitted absentee ballots they had marked someplace other than a polling booth equipped with an approved marking device.

So on Election Night, results indicated that Racine County voters were weirdly uninterested in the presidential race. Across the rest of the state, only about 1 in every 130 voters (0.77%) left their ballots blank for president. But in Racine County, almost 1.8% of the ballots were counted as if they were blank. In the City of Racine, the rate was even higher–2.6%.  In individual Racine County precincts, up to 1 in every 12 ballots was counted as blank.

In  Outagamie County, too, Optech Eagles were telling election officials that dozens of voters had cast no vote for president. In one municipality there, the machine saw no vote for president on more than 1.4% of the ballots.

The machines in the City of Marinette took the prize. The machine that counted ballots cast by absentee voters in the City of Marinette’s 7th and 8th Wards printed out results indicating no presidential vote on 9.6% of the ballots. The machine counting Wards 1, 3, and 5 saw no votes on 26.5% of the ballots.

And the machine counting Wards 2, 4, and 6 saw no presidential vote on 30.8% of the ballots it attempted to count.

To their discredit, local election officials either did not notice these obvious errors, or noticed them but chose not to correct them. Officials in these counties signed legal documents attesting that they had reviewed the election results and found them to be “correct and true.” But in fact, they hadn’t done that at all. At least not until the recount forced them to.

Marinette officials, who conducted their recount by hand, corrected their miscount in the recount. Outagamie officials recounted using the same machines and therefore did not detect their miscount until ordered to do a biennial voting-machine audit in January. By then, it was too late to correct the official vote totals.

Racine County officials still haven’t resolved their weird vote totals. They recounted by machine and so certified the bizarre vote totals twice–once after the election and once after the recount–without ever checking to see why they were so weird. In fact, county election officials were so determined to trust unexamined computer output that they refused to check accuracy even after the machines could be seen to be visibly miscounting during the recount.   

To their credit, staff of the Wisconsin Elections Commission took steps to figure out what was going on. In January, they asked Outagamie County to send their election materials, including the ballots, to Madison so that staff could examine them and make sure the miscounts were what everyone suspected: an inability to read the ink that many voters used to mark their ballots.

They concluded that ink almost certainly contributed to the miscounts, but that didn’t explain all the missed votes. WEC staff concluded “This exercise did not produce a result that allowed staff with confidence to understand how the Optech Eagle treated these ballots.”

Something else, in addition to ink color, was going on, and they couldn’t tell what it was.

In June, staff wrote a memo to Commission members, telling them ““The analysis of the performance of the Optech Eagle identified a significant limitation of the equipment.”

The Commission itself then did the right thing, too. They instructed staff to prepare a plan for decertifying the machine, to be decided next Tuesday at their September 26 meeting.

When the Optech Eagle is decertified, it will be illegal to use in Wisconsin. Municipalities will be forced to upgrade to newer machines with enhanced ability to count votes marked in any ink. And that will make our elections a little safer from miscounts. Professor Douglas W. Jones, of the University of Iowa Computer Sciences Department told me: “I’ve tested the newer machines with everything that I can imagine a voter using. Even glitter pens work, though I still wouldn’t recommend them.”

We cannot overlook the fact that two failures produced these miscounted election results.

First, the machines miscounted.

Second, local election officials certified those miscounts as “correct and true” anyway.

Replacing the unreliable voting machines with new ones will solve one limited problem. But no sensible person believes that no voting machine will ever again miscount Wisconsin votes. No computer system can do that, particularly when the computers are scattered among every Wisconsin city, village, and town; managed by an army of IT-naive temporary staff; and for which security is a responsibility split among vendors, service technicians, and local election officials.

How many elections did those old machines miscount before the recount revealed the problem to the general public?

And why didn’t Wisconsin’s election officials notice and correct this problem sooner?

Here’s why: Statutes provide Wisconsin’s local election officials with a review period following every election, called the ‘canvass’  during which they can review accuracy before they declare the election results final.

But the election officials don’t actually review accuracy. Most clerks are more polite than you see on that Racine County video, but they all place the same blind faith in computer-calculated vote totals. Wisconsin’s local election officials just point to the computer print-out and say “Oh, look who won.”

On Election Night, when the City of Marinette machines produced such weird numbers, poll workers noted tabulation problems in their Election-Night written reports. Yet neither the city nor county clerks took corrective action. They knowingly certified results that were obviously missing hundreds of votes.

You won’t find a county canvass anywhere in Wisconsin that does better. The Dane County clerk will tell you he’s the only clerk in the state who checks machines’ accuracy after every election (2 machines). But if you press, he will admit he doesn’t do that during the canvass. He waits until after he has already legally sworn that the results are accurate and has declared them final.

If the WEC decides to decertify next Tuesday, we commend them for taking action to solve the Optech Eagle part of the problem. We are also asking that they take steps to solve the other half: we are asking the WEC to provide the county canvasses with more specific instructions and stronger encouragement to verify accuracy before certifying election results.

More than 20 other states have already built some kind of verification into their canvass procedures, and they do not declare election results final until they have confirmed accuracy. Wisconsin is no better off than states with paperless touchscreens if all we do is seal our paper ballots in bags and never use them to verify the vote totals.

At the very least, Wisconsin’s county clerks need to begin to use simple, routine ‘reasonability tests,’ which are simple calculations they can do at their desks to look for vote totals that don’t make any sense–and then resolve any anomalies they see.

If we have any dedicated county clerks who want to take the lead to bring Wisconsin’s canvass procedures into the 21st Century, (ask yours!) our statutes already allow that clerk to adopt whatever canvass procedures he or she wants. National authorities stand ready to helpwith the implementation of modern methods of election auditing. 

There is no reason for Wisconsin voters to continue to trust our right to self-government to anonymous computer programmers or whoever hacked in behind them, or to hope that some IT Fairy Godmother will from now on protect our voting machines from any more glitches. 

Our election clerks could be checking accuracy if they chose to–and we need to insist that they do.


* Stephen Ansolabehere, Harvard University; Barry C. Burden and Kenneth R. Mayer, UW-Madison; Charles Stewart III, Massachusetts Institute of Technology –  Learning from Recounts, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Political Science Department Research Paper No. 2017-12. July 2017.