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.

Election officials give us only reassurance. We want security.

September 27, 2017 —

Main point: Public officials must keep the public both safe and calm. 
The danger is when election officials’ goal is reassurance, not safety.

Yesterday’s Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC) meeting was packed with more cameras than I’d ever seen there. A few days earlier, the federal Department of Homeland Security announced that Russian-government backed hackers had tested the security of Wisconsin’s online voter registration system. They hadn’t gotten in. The ‘attack’ was, the computer experts say, like jiggling a locked door knob.

What voters get: “As you can see, it’s a beautiful day, the beaches are open and people are having a wonderful time.” – Mayor Vaughn, to a reporter.

“I don’t get it.” I told a reporter as the meeting got under way. “What’s the news here? Hackers are continuously testing every computer system. The Russian government is known for cybercrime. It would be news if they were not testing the security of our elections systems.”

I don’t remember his response, other than it wasn’t convincing. I fear the real answer is that his editors know which stories get the web clicks.

The facts that WEC shared were as I expected. State officials from the WEC and the Wisconsin Division of Enterprise Technology (DET) explained their system of continuous defense against hacking of our voter registration system (which is separate from the tabulation system, also known as the voting machines). Millions of efforts to get into the registration system are detected every week, from anonymous Internet addresses all over the world. Unrecognized addresses are locked out and if that fails, any unauthorized changes will be promptly noticed and reversed. If that fails, daily backups are made so that if some malicious code ever causes the system suddenly to garble or erase our voter registrations on election morning, a correct version can be quickly brought up. If that fails, paper backups are printed immediately before each Election Day.

State officials were convincingly competent and straightforward. The story that later appeared in the paper made the federal officials, not the state ones, look like the Keystone Cops. 

WEC and DET took the opportunity to explain the security of our voter registration system to the press—while the press was willing to listen. When officials are keeping us safe, reassuring the public is usually as easy and effective as just telling the truth.

The officials’ explanation about our voter registration system confirmed my trusting assumptions about its security.

But the security of our vote-counting software is a completely different story

Our election officials’ silence about security for that system should be a dead giveaway there’s a shark in the water.

Like ‘baby’ in a pop song, election officials’ yesterday continuously repeated “We’re talking about the voter-registration system, not the vote-counting systems.” The reporters’ keyboards clicked along to the beat. Yeah, yeah, yeah. None seemed to notice the story within that silence on the vote-counting software.

Here’s why we don’t get convincing, impressive descriptions of the security system for our voting machines: Because it doesn’t exist. At least when sharks are eating tourists, someone notices. But if anyone is hacking our voting machines, their crimes would go undetected as we swear their chosen victors into office.

Reassuring spin: “We’ve seen no evidence of tampering with the vote-counting system.” The furor about Russian testing of our voter-registration system’s security was made possible by federal officials’ looking for it. No one–local, state, or federal–reviews Wisconsin’s election results to make sure they are accurate. None of them make any efforts to detect any doorknob jiggling of our vote-counting software, which is proprietary and controlled by the voting-machine companies.

Reassuring spin: “Our decentralized vote-counting system makes hacking unlikely.” After the vote-counting software is produced at the companies, it’s downloaded to the dozens of computers that will be used to design the ballots for each election and to tell the voting machines how to read those ballots. These are the ‘election management systems’ that reside at the vendor’s regional offices, the voting-machine service companies like Command Central, and in the offices of county election officials.

When election officials talk about the security of the vote-counting systems, they often refer to this decentralization. They say it makes the system harder to hack.

But they cannot possible imagine that, to tip a statewide race, a hacker would need to design a hack specifically for every type of voting machine used in Wisconsin and alter the results in every county. You can see the silliness of that–What’s Russian for “Darn it, we missed Forest County. Well, maybe next year.”? There are enough votes in Milwaukee County alone, or a few other counties, to control the outcome of most statewide races.

Not only does the decentralization provide little protection, it multiplies the possible entry points and places them in the physical control of an army of people with no particular IT security expertise, and often no access to any.

After the software is downloaded to the local election-management computers, it’s revised for each new election and then copied onto removable drives–typically, the same sort of USB drive you can buy at the drugstore. The drives are then handed off to the municipal clerks, who load the software onto each voting machine.

On Election Day, it’s in the physical control of the poll workers. At this point, we should probably be hoping that the possessors of the software have no IT expertise, rather than wishing that they did.

Between elections, the vote-counting computers are stored in very town, village, and city in the state, under conditions that the election officials themselves don’t always control.

No one exercises any oversight of this disjointed system. Computer security expert Bruce Schneier told NPR’s Science Friday that federal voting-system security standards were outdated long ago, and no one is now exercising any oversight even if the standards were current. Vendors can coach county clerks on how to maintain security, but they have no way of knowing whether the clerks follow their instructions. To my knowledge (and I asked when I can), no state or local official ever attempts to oversee or even ask about voting-machine company security. They wouldn’t know how to evaluate it if they did, or any authority to force corrections.

Johns Hopkins University Computer Security Professor Aviel Rubin made a point of contacting the major voting-machine companies who count America’s votes. He reported “I have yet to meet an American voting system manufacturer that employs even one full-time trained expert in computer security.”

Reassuring spin: “Our voting machines are never connected to the Internet.” This used to be true, but there’s no machine on the market anymore without the capability of electronically transmitting results after the polls close. That, however, is not and never was the big risk. Connecting a voting machine to the Internet or to a cell phone tower after the polls close doesn’t give a hacker any opportunity to alter a hard-copy poll tape you’ve already printed. Having observed more poll-closings than I can count and several canvass meetings, I can vouch for the fact that is the one hack our election officials would likely detect and could easily correct. 

The vulnerability comes before the votes are counted, not after. The big risk of manipulation–in fact the one that forensic IT security experts deem the greatest–doesn’t come from the Internet at all, but from insiders with authorized access to the software. Because no state or local election officials have the authority or ability to inspect the vote-tabulating software for integrity, even lightly sophisticated individuals–at the voting machine company, the service company, the local official’s office, or anywhere along the chain of custody–could alter the software and not be noticed. Thousands of people have authorized access to our vote-counting software or hardware between every election. Many of them, in the testing laboratories, voting-machine companies and service companies, understand the code. Many of the others likely can be bought–they are humans.

But hackers without authorized access can get in. The vote-counting software is created, updated, and maintained not on each individual voting machine, but on computers that are almost certainly, at some time, connected to the Internet.

And local election officials have no way to tell whether and when the individual voting machines are communicating with other machines. Wireless communications capability can be installed inside any computer or voting machine–antenna and all–without their knowledge and controlled by anyone within transmission range. Local election officials never inspect the insides of the voting machines for surreptitiously installed wireless cards, and few would know what to look for if they did.

Reassuring spin: “No  election has ever been hacked.” The truth is, our election officials wouldn’t know if one had. They don’t use the one practical opportunity–checking the results against the paper ballots–to check the system’s integrity. If any election ever has been hacked, it’s likely no one noticed.

What voters need: “Smile, you son of a bitch.” – Martin Brody, to the shark.

Yet despite the widespread concern about the security of last year’s presidential election, not a single state had routine procedures in place to verify an accurate statewide vote count. Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Florida proved unable to document accuracy even when directly challenged, unable to get a recount even started.

Wisconsin did best. Every county at least double-checked things like the handling of absentee ballots, but only half of the vote totals were checked for accuracy. The other half were just run back through the same computers, so any electronic miscounts would have just been repeated. We know that some were miscounted twice.

State officials in Wisconsin recently scored a first, when in January they detected a few miscounting computers—after the winners from the previous November were already sworn into office. To their credit, they decertified the machines. They are still are not sure what caused the miscounts—they know ink color on the ballots contributed, and that from their size and randomness, the miscounts seem unlikely to be even a trial-run hack.

What to do?

Face it: State and local election officials will never have the authority, skill, or money to maintain strong IT security for our vote-counting software. It’s just not going to happen. Elections are too intermittent, the workforce too temporary, the property taxpayers too stingy to make good security possible.

Our only hope for protecting our election results from hackers–and from malfunctions, glitches, and human operator error–is to notice and correct any miscounts before results are certified.

If the polls opened and voter registrations were garbled, we would notice. Perhaps that’s why those responsible for the software are so vigilant–they know any laxity will get found out.

But we cannot sit by the television on Election Night and say “Hey! That’s not how we voted!” Voters have no way to tell honest election results from false ones. And maybe that’s why checking accuracy is such a low priority for our election officials. If they don’t detect the miscounts, they can keep saying–honestly–“We’ve never known an election to be hacked.”

Most states now have paper ballots, or at least paper audit trails, that could be used to check the accuracy of the computer output. National election authorities have developed, and national officials endorsed, efficient methods that don’t require a full hand count.

Every other public official takes responsibility for the accuracy of their work product. It’s long past time for voters to insist their election officials do the same.

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.

We did good!

July 11, 2017 — The investigation of the 2014 Stoughton referendum miscount that I, Julie Crego, and Sue Trace did in 2015, in collaboration with Stoughton Municipal Clerk Lana Kropf, was recognized as “helpful” by the Civic Design Project, a joint effort of the User Experience Professionals Association and the Center for Civic Design

They recommended a  post from this blog to civic design professionals working in elections as “useful” because it “discusses the causes of incorrectly counted votes by paper ballot scanner and provides suggestions for proper ballot design and election day procedures to help prevent miscount errors.”

Journalists are awakening!

June 14, 2017 —  Over the past five years, I’ve read every commercial media story I could find regarding election technology.  Sadly, that has not been a big job. Few reporters ever mentioned the risks, and those who did tended to interview only election officials. The typical news item would hint ‘some are concerned’ and then quote some official saying “We see no evidence of problems.” The question of whether the officials had been monitoring for problems–or whether they even knew how to–was left unasked and unanswered.

But recently, I am noticing progress in commercial news media’s coverage of the risks of elections technology. America’s reporters are catching up with millions of citizens and all IT professionals. They are realizing that computerized elections have risks, and that IT experts understand those risks better than election officials do.

That’s not the only recent improvement. Some reporters have noticed the solution, too. This morning I saw a news story in national mainstream media that went beyond hand-wringing over the risks and mentioned routine election verification.

Under the headline If Voting Machines Were Hacked, Would Anyone Know?, NPR’s Pamela Fessler gave listeners the answer: No.  Then instead of musing about hypothetical alternate technologies, she finished the piece with a plug for routine election audits. A few weeks ago, the Atlantic also had a good article focusing on election audits, with the subtitle “A low-tech solution to America’s voting problems.”

Don’t get me wrong. We are still not seeing the sort of explanatory or investigative journalism that our elections deserve. But things are looking up. Commercial journalists have finally found the phone numbers of election-technology experts. In recent weeks, Reuters turned to the University of Michigan’s Alex Halderman and ABC News quoted the University of Iowa’s Douglas W. Jones.

Even a city reporter, Kristian Torres of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, now knows to pick up the phone to interview Princeton’s cybersecurity expert, Edward W. Felten, when she has questions about elections technology. A local lawsuit there challenged Georgia’s failure to preserve an auditable paper trail.

But when the same opportunity (that is, renowned experts explaining the local angle on a topic of national interest) presented itself to Wisconsin journalists, they missed the opportunity. Last November, when three crème de la crème national experts testified in Dane County Court, Wisconsin reporters focused on mundane, predictable angles, such as the cost of the recount.

The currently trending issue–Russian hacking–might blow over, but I don’t think the improvement in reporters’ understanding of the larger issues will fade. National-beat journalists are truly waking up to this issue.  So it’s only a matter of time before state and local journalists, too, bring some gravitas to their reporting on the topic.

I’m optimistic that we will see fewer formulaic stories approvingly quoting a clerk saying “It’s all good because we have no evidence of miscounts.” I’m looking forward to seeing more actual IT experts quoted.

And I can’t wait to hear Wisconsin officials’ answers after the next election when for the first time they face a reporter who asks, “Got it–no evidence of hacking. Now can you show us the evidence of accuracy?”

What do we want: “Not one wrong vote” or “Maybe a few thousand is okay”?

In brief:  Our election officials tell us that every single valid vote and not one single invalid vote should be counted. But if you watch closely, you’ll notice that election officials tend to tolerate any size or type of miscount unless it seems to affect the outcome.
Well, which is it? Do we want 100% accuracy, or do we want only approximate election results that probably identify the right winner? Until we face the need for clear and consistent standards, we cannot hold our election officials to any.

(Updated with additional information from a June 2017 report from WEC staff–see end of blog post.) 


May 30, 2017 — During the 15 years I supervised investigations for Wisconsin’s legislative oversight agency, I learned the value of several specific thinking skills. One was to be clear about expectations.  

Auditors call them ‘standards’. Investigations start when someone reports that something is not as it should be. A good investigator’s first step is to figure out: What is it that should be?  What would things look like if everything was working right?

If, for example, the complaint is “This permitting process takes too long”, we need to know how long people expect it to take.

This habit of noticing standards—or their absence–spilled over into the rest of my life. It’s useful. You probably know that you’re less likely to be swayed by a salesperson if you’ve already decided how much you want to spend before you set foot in the store.

And standards keep us heading in the right direction. As the Cheshire Cat told Alice, which way you need to go from here depends a good deal on where you want to get to.

The way things are now, however, paying close attention to the standards we set for our elections can make a person dizzy.

Sometimes we apply a strict standard:  Not a single wrong vote. Not one. 

According to Chris Ott, Executive Director of the Wisconsin ACLU, “We know precisely the number of eligible voters that is too many to keep away from the polls: even one.”

He was talking about Voter ID, and how it keeps some eligible voters from the polls.

Those who fuss about ineligible voters proclaim the same single-vote standard. In April 2015, I observed a Wisconsin county board of canvass as they decided what to do about a ballot cast by a voter who lacked ID. She had been given a provisional ballot. Those ballots are supposed to be sealed in an envelope and counted only after the voter returns with identification. However, the voter naively fed it into the voting machine right away, and it was counted.

There were 234,680 other ballots in that election. But the officials decided that if the voter did not provide identification by the deadline, they were going to go after that one rogue ballot. They were going to unseal the ballot bags, find it, and discard it. They were not willing to tolerate even one wrong vote.

And on those rare occasions when officials find evidence of voter fraud, they take action.  In 2014, a Wisconsin audit reviewed voting records in statewide elections from February 2010 through April 2014 and found that, across four years and 16 elections, a total of 33 felons might have cast illegitimate votes. The legislature directed the state elections agency to refer the cases to district attorneys for possible prosecution.

This single-vote standard is also applied to voting machines. Federal standards require no more than one miscounted vote in every 500,000 from perfectly marked ballots, when counted in laboratory tests.

In real life situations, modern paper-ballot systems have achieved 99.99% accuracy even when the ballots contain some poorly marked votes.  But in 2012, one Texas county thought “hand-marked paper ballots …open the door to ambiguous voter intent.” The possibility of one miscounted vote in 10,000 was too much for them, so they threw away their paper ballots and bought touchscreen voting machines instead.

Other times we apply a lax standard: A few thousand wrong or miscounted votes isn’t anything to worry about.

In the 2016 recount of Wisconsin’s presidential election, one county’s board of canvass discovered more than five dozen valid absentee ballots had been left uncounted on Election Day.  And the errors didn’t stop there. That county’s officials determined they and their voting machines had originally miscounted 1,475 votes—either not counted them when they should have, counted when they should not have, or counted them for the wrong candidate. Then, when reporting the recount results, they accidentally recorded 21 votes in the wrong candidate’s column. They did not correct that error when informed of it. (1)

Commenting after the recount, the county clerk said he was “extremely proud.” He made it clear he thought the recount had been unnecessary. Checking accuracy when the race is not close, he wrote, is “really quite an insult to suggest that we don’t know how to do our jobs.”

News media coverage of the recount reflected the same relaxed standard.  In Marinette County, the recount revealed that one city’s voting machines had failed to detect votes on 291, or 24%, of the ballots. This miscount was obvious to both municipal and county officials on Election Night, but they considered it tolerable and certified results without correcting the error. Only the recount forced correction.  No reporters considered the incident worthy of investigation or reporting, and it received no coverage.

The Wisconsin State Journal’s headline made its standard clear: “Recount found thousands of errors, but no major flaws.”

So which accuracy standard should we use—exact or approximate?

Readers familiar with my work may be surprised that I don’t think we should pursue 100% accuracy.  Until we can find someone other than humans to run our elections, perfection is not within our grasp. Reaching for it throws us off balance. For example, when the Texas county threw away voter-marked paper ballots because of a tiny miscount rate, it threw away its ability to detect miscounts of any size because it no longer had an auditable record.

The whole voter ID mess is the worst illustration of what happens when we seek perfection. Even without ID requirements, our registration system prevents all but insignificant voter fraud. And yet states with voter ID are spending millions to go after the remaining, minuscule problem. They are inconveniencing every honest citizen who casts a vote, and preventing thousands from voting at all. All in the vain pursuit of perfection.

So I’m not on board with an “every single vote” standard of accuracy.  But when our election officials and media yawn at thousands of miscounted votes, I’m not willing to say “Mistakes are okay,” either.

A complete lack of standards leaves the door open for wild inconsistency. I told you about one county where officials were willing to track down and discard even one illegitimate vote out of more than 234,000. And I told you about a county where standards were so lax that when they discovered 1,475 miscounting errors, the county clerk said he was insulted that anyone would request verification.  Both stories are from the same county, the same clerk, the same board of canvass—Dane County, Wisconsin.

That’s what happens without standards. Officials can pick and choose their own targets, grabbing one before Election Day and a different one after. They can apply one standard to voters’ errors and a different one to their own. Without standards, voters, candidates, and reporters—and conscientious officials—have no solid ground to stand on when they try to assess the quality of the elections.

If we had a clear standard—say, 99% confidence that the election results identified the correct winner—we could make better judgments about where to spend our effort and election resources. We could set a threshold for voter fraud, and establish that it is not worth millions of dollars to prevent a few people from voting twice. We could tell our election officials that no, it’s not okay to declare election results final until after you’ve corrected the voting-machine output that missed one in every four votes.

And by the way, should we count write-in votes?

It’s not just a question of picking a maximum acceptable error rate.  Wisconsin hasn’t yet settled the question of how—or even whether—to count write-in votes.

For those who believe elections need to do no more than identify winners, write-in votes are not worth counting. Some election officials appear to be in this group. In last November’s presidential election, Wisconsin officials counted only 84.3 percent of the votes for registered write-in candidate Evan McMullin until the recount forced a do-over.  That is, more than one in seven voters’ expressed preference for McMullin was simply ignored when officials first tabulated and certified the election results.

Bernie Sanders’ voters fared even worse. Wisconsin law currently does not require officials to count votes for unregistered write-in candidates.  The state elections agency allows counties, at their option, to report the total number of such votes in a miscellaneous category called ‘scattering.’ But not all counties do. So 24 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties did not report the number of miscellaneous write-in votes in the original results, the recount, or both. In these counties, write-ins for unregistered write-in candidates were literally—and legally—treated as if the ballots were blank. No one has any idea how many voters were so frustrated with the nominees that they were willing to go to the polls to express their feelings.

For those who believe election results need to reflect the voice of the people, that’s not okay. Some voters may be content to have the voice of the people constrained to saying only one of two things: either “I like the Democratic candidate” or “I like the Republican candidate.” But others want an opportunity to say that they want someone else, and to have that voice heard.

If and when we want to improve the accuracy of our elections—or even talk about it productively—we’re going to have to face and resolve these questions.

(1) The author detected the error—21 votes added to Cherunda Fox’s total for the Village of Waunakee—while reviewing the recount findings. An email exchange with the Village Clerk in March 2017 confirmed that the votes should have been added to Evan McMullin’s total. A check of official results on the state’s website on May 28, 2017 confirmed that the error had not been corrected—and likely will not be, because the recount results have been certified final and are no longer subject to correction.

UPDATE, June 20, 2017

At today’s meeting of the Wisconsin Election Commission, staff presented a report on the 47 voting-machine audits–something different than recounts–that were performed in accordance with s.7.08(6), Wis. Stats. following the November election. My detailed description of how these audits work is here.

Instructions for the audit (page 6 of the memo) seem to indicate the audit standard is “not one vote must be miscounted.” However, the memo is not specific about the number of votes in any of the audits, which gives us a sign that the officials performing the audits and reporting the results were applying a less precise standard. 

One of the villages randomly selected for audit, the Village of Hortonville in Outagamie County, could not reconcile the results of its audit hand-count with the Election-Night results they reported and certified. (Outagamie County uses the Optech Eagle, and did its recount by machine, so the electronic miscounts must have merely been replicated in the recount, not caught.)

However, the report does make it clear that after separate attempts by the municipality, county, and state to reconcile the different vote totals, “This exercise did not produce a result that allowed staff to understand how the Optech Eagle treated these ballots with confidence.”

Now, back to the point of this blog post: What is the implicit standard that our election officials applied in this case? ‘Not one vote’, or ‘miscounts are okay’?  A key statement is on page 11 of the memo:

“The analysis of the performance of the Optech Eagle identified a significant limitation of the equipment, but the Optech Eagle performed as expected during the 2016 Presidential Election.”

Read that again to make sure that phrase sinks in: “A significant limitation…as expected.”  That’s the standard for accuracy that is applied by our election officials to Wisconsin’s voting-machines.