Report on the Dane County Canvass: 99.6% unverified

April 14, 2016 at 1:29pm — I observed Dane County’s post-election canvass of the April 5 election results from start to finish this year–all 19 hours over 4 days.

No surprises: As usual, both the municipal and county canvasses checked and double-checked to make sure the right number of BALLOTS had been counted. However, the Board of Canvass (County Clerk Scott McDonell, Democratic Party representative Gretchen Lowe, and Republican Party representative Joyce Waldrop) certified Dane County’s election results at around 3:30 PM on Wednesday, before any one had done anything to verify that the correct number of VOTES had been counted.

The votes of 234,681 Dane County voters (99.6% of the total) were certified based only on unaudited computer output. Vote totals are now no longer subject to change or correction.

The other 859 ballots were late-arriving absentee ballots and approved provisional ballots, which had been publicly hand-counted by the municipalities. The last two days of the county canvass were devoted to making sure the votes from those 849 ballots were added to the correct candidates’ totals.

Got that? Half the canvass effort to ensure the accurate counting of only 0.4% of the votes.

Over four days, County Clerk McDonell maintained the minimum transparency required by law. Any observers who were already familiar with the statutes and GAB guidance for county canvasses (that would be me) could follow along reasonably well, but anyone else would have been out of luck in terms of understanding what the canvassers were doing or why. McDonell provided no written procedures or standards–not even to the members of the board. Neither did he explain what they were doing as they went along; allow questions from observers; or provide observers with copies of anything the canvassers were looking at, or make it visible to them in any way such as by projecting it on a screen.

“Just guess” was the unspoken message to the public. Finally, he restricted any public comment to five minutes at the end of the four-day-long meeting. 

It got this bizarre: At the end of the four days, I asked if I could ask a question and was told I could make a five-minute statement and that was it.  (McDonell claimed that to answer a question for the public would be a violation of open meetings law.)

So the official public comment at the county canvass started with this awkwardness coming out of my mouth: “I noticed an agenda-less canvass meeting on the county calendar for 10 AM on April 20. I assume that is the digital-image audit you’ve been promising. I hope you will let me know if I am right or wrong in that assumption.” 

I’m not making this up: McDonell didn’t even nod yes or no.  And when Waldrop wanted to respond to my comment, he wouldn’t allow that, either. 

This created something of a Mad-Hatter-Tea-Party feeling to the event, since it was basically just four of us sitting around a table in a conference room in the City-County building, sharing Girl Scout cookies from McDonell’s daughters. The canvassers and I would chat whenever McDonell left the room, but when he was present they had to pretend I wasn’t there, as McDonell himself did.

I left them with a letter, which I’ve uploaded here.  It’s kind of wonky–I wanted to address them as professionals who know and care what words like ‘risk,’ ‘prioritize’ and ‘verification’ mean. I could see that at least Lowe was reading it carefully, and she asked me a few sensible questions after the meeting adjourned. The main points of the letter are:

  • they spend most of their time addressing risks that are much more remote than the risk of electronic miscounts, or that address no risk at all–such as reviewing vote totals in uncontested races for which it would be impossible for them to certify the wrong winner; and
  • they also spend time on tasks that don’t need to be completed before they certify the election results, such as discussing individual municipalities’ Election-Day practices for keeping track of the number of voters.

And yet they tell us they have no time to check the accuracy of the computer-generated vote totals–which cover 99.6% of the votes.

My request to them wasn’t anything dramatic: I simply urged them to consider risk and timeliness when they decide what to do during the canvass, and told them if they thought about it that way, it would be obvious that verification of the computer output is more important than most of what they are doing now.



As I sat listening to them recite numbers for four days, I visualized the following graphic, which shows:

  1.  The steps by which our votes are turning into final election results;
  2.  The parts of this process that are verified by the current county canvass procedures; and
  3.   The parts of the process that are verified by the type of audit we’ve been demonstrating in our citizens’ audits.

Local clerks’ excuses for not talking about election audits

December 20, 2015  — Before I retired, I worked in quality assurance for a program that delivered health care in clients’ homes. It was a human-services government program, so the provider agencies never had more than a a shoestring budget. Rarely was there only one right way to do anything.

Whether because of or in spite of that, most managers were willing to think and talk about quality improvement.

But there were always a few mangers who reflexively insisted, “Everything is already as good as it can possibly be, and I don’t need any new ideas.” 

Now that I’m working in election integrity, I’m seeing a lot more of that second type of ‘manager’.

Verifying computer output shouldn’t be a novel idea. Wisconsin statutes require clerks to keep an ‘auditable’ paper record of every ballot, not a ‘decorative’ one, so we can safely infer that legislative intent had something to do with checking accuracy. No sensible person doubts the need to check accuracy, whether the output is our property tax bills or our election results. 

Responsible election officials can converse about the practicalities: How many ballots do we have to examine before we can be confident we’ve identified the right winners? How can we do that in the time available? If I innovate, what opposition can I anticipate and who is willing to back me up?

Those managers’ conversation focuses on reasonable problem-solving, not excuses for inaction.

But there are many election officials who, when they catch even a gentle breeze of change, batten down the hatches as if expecting a hurricane.

Late last month, I sent a for-your-information letter to each of the 61 municipal clerks in a county where we’re working on raising awareness of the need for verification and its practical solution.

Because many are sensitive to any hint of criticism, the letter made it clear that we were asking for change in only county procedures, not municipal ones. In describing what we would be asking of the county, I chose the most respectful, non-threatening, benign words possible without misleading them about the fact that we are asking for improvement.

The letter ended with an offer to visit the municipal clerk, at his or her convenience, to talk more about the issue.

Two weeks later, I found one response in my email inbox. After a few comments that revealed significant naiveté about the inherent limitations of the local clerks’ IT security measures, the municipal clerk wrote:

I tire of these subtle (and sometimes blatant) indictments of a system where it is obvious that no one has taken the time to confer with the clerks first. Instead, they pattern advice on what is assumed to be true.  Also, I get the impression someone is prepared to sell us some proprietary software to “fix” a non-problem.

Well, at least he responded. That put him ahead of the other sixty municipal clerks.

The devil on my shoulder wanted to respond by calling the writer’s bluff by pointing out that if he was genuinely willing to confer, he could have accepted my offer to meet rather than complain that we’d never met. 

But I shushed that suggestion. In my actual response, I explained some of the basics of prudent IT security as briefly as I could.

I did not bother to reiterate my offer to meet with him, and I don’t expect to hear back. When someone has boarded up all his mental doors and windows, my guess is that the best thing is to let him calm down in silence until he realizes there won’t be a hurricane.

The disheartening thing is that the people who are open to the breezes of change are not those who are in a position to implement improvements.

Voters and poll workers, to start with, are very interested when they learn that election results could be made safe from electronic miscounts. They know how much they have invested in elections, and how tragic it would be to lose it all to a computer glitch, when such a loss could easily be prevented. 

State and national officials are interested, too. It’s the national authorities’ recommendations that we’re trying to get local elections officials to heed.

Last July, when we gave a public demonstration of an efficient new verification method, attendance at the event included the director of the state Government Accountability Board and his chief elections manager; the director of the state League of Women Voters; and a nationally-renowned, federal-government-advising expert on election technology and computer-science professor from a neighboring state.

From within a 30-mile radius, we had also invited 3 county elections officials, 37 county board supervisors, and 61 municipal clerks. Not one of them showed up. Not one.

Among the I-have-a banana-in-my-ear responses I’ve received from local officials over the past few years:

  • Every professional version of “I’m planning on washing my hair that night.” If an election is coming up within two months, they are too busy preparing to talk. If an election is more than two months away, they will be willing to talk about election administration issues when they are more timely.  The City of Madison municipal clerk begged off attendance at one public meeting by saying she’d be too busy registering voters—at 8:00 PM. (She has a staff of seven.)
  • They’re just so busy with everything else all the time, they cannot even read the invitation. One county board supervisor told me not to expect a response from any other county board supervisor because “We get so many emails we don’t read them.”
  • It’s not my job: “You don’t need to talk to me because I’m (not on that committee; not in the majority; from a neighborhood too affected by Voter ID…).”
  • And, of course, silence.

This cannot go on forever. We will get their attention somehow. For all our sakes, I hope it’s before the next serious electronic miscount gives us cause to shout “I told you so!”