Elections Technology: Recording and Tabulating our Votes Correctly

In Wisconsin polling places, you’ll find three types of elections technology, depending on the local jurisdiction. The main difference between them is how the votes are recorded. Each type of machine has a unique set of advantages and risks.

  1. Opscans (optical scan) do not record votes–they just count them. Voters record their own votes on paper ballots, and insert them into the voting machine to be counted;
  2. BMDs (ballot-marking devices) do not count votes–they just record them. These are are touch-screen machines that enable voters with disabilities to mark ballots which, after being printed, will be inserted into an opscan for counting; and
  3. DREs (direct-recording electronic machines) both record and count. With DRE machines, voters indicate their choices with a touchscreen, and the computer prints a paper ballot that stays inside the machine, although voters have the option to inspect it if they wish.

1. RECORDING our votes

In jurisdictions that use paper-ballot systems, voters can make sure their votes are accurately recorded simply by following instructions carefully and inspecting their ballot closely before they insert it into the opscan. 

In jurisdictions that use DREs, voters must rely on the voting machines to create a “voter-verifiable paper trail” (VVPAT) that contains a printed record of every ballot cast.

When it’s printed correctly, the VVPAT can be used to check the accuracy of the electronically tabulated totals. However, with DREs, certain malfunctions (whether accidental or deliberate) can eliminate any true record of the voter’s intent. 

Poll workers must be vigilant to ensure the DRE paper trail is created. During Election Day the paper might jam or tear. It might print illegibly or not at all if the wrong type of paper is used, if the paper was loaded incorrectly, or if the printing mechanism malfunctions in some other way. Voters do not always notice or report these problems to poll workers promptly. The machines retain an electronic ‘cast vote record,’ which allows a paper trail to be reprinted if the paper trail was not printing on Election Day, but the reprinted trail is not a valid record for recount or audit, because the voters had no chance to verify it.

Voters must be vigilant when using DREs. Displaying the vote on the screen, counting a vote in the internal tally, and printing a vote on the paper trail are three separate processes. They can be hacked so that they do not all show the same candidate. Studies have found that if the paper trail shows incorrect votes, chances are small that the incorrect votes will be noticed. And of the few voters who do notice, most will simply correct their vote and leave the polling place without saying anything to the poll workers. So poll workers cannot count on being able to notice if a DRE has been hacked to flip votes.

Poll workers need continuously to remind voters to check the paper trail before casting their votes, and to take any reports of errors seriously.  

Because of these additional risks with DREs, the Wisconsin Election Integrity Action recommends that jurisdictions purchase only opscan systems for use with voter-marked paper ballots.

2. COUNTING our votes.

Many smaller Wisconsin jurisdictions still rely on hand counts, which routinely include a validation count. Hand counts are never done by just one person, counting alone. When votes are hand-counted, even preliminary election results are not reported until two or even more people have counted the votes and agree on the total.

But when election results are tabulated electronically, our votes are counted only once–by software written in proprietary secrecy by private vendors in other states or by whomever hacked in behind them. 

Wisconsin’s local elections officials do a reliably good job of making sure the voting machines counted the correct number of ballots, but if the computer miscounts the votes, the flawed output will likely not be noticed or corrected unless the miscount is dramatic.

Sources of electronic miscounts

Voting-machine miscounts are caused by the same things that can mess up any computer: 1) Malfunction; 2) Mistakes; and 3) Malicious interference.

Malfunction. Anyone who uses a computer knows that computers can do unexpected things because of power surges or outages, physical damage, or no apparent reason. In one case in New York, optical scanners overheated mid-day and lost calibration, but kept counting ballots without counting any votes. Thousands of voters were disenfranchised, and the miscount was not discovered until long after election results had been declared final. In a 2014 Wisconsin election, dust bunnies voted in a local referendum, when they got inside a voting machine and cast shadows on the ballots as the computer was ‘reading’ them.

Mistakes.More than 600 voters in Medford, Wisconsin were disenfranchised in November 2004 when their voting-machine vendor neglected to program the machines to read straight-party ticket votes. The problem was discovered in March 2005, when a political party consultant compiling data on registered voters noticed that the number of voters who cast ballots was much higher than the number of votes counted. More than a thousand Wisconsin absentee voters were disenfranchised in the November 2016 Presidential election when they marked their ballots with ink the machines could not detect, and poll workers failed to notice and fed the ballots into the opscans anyway.

Malicious code. Wisconsin’s county and municipal clerks might maintain the tightest security they can, but the elections software security is not fully in their control. Private out-of-state corporations write and maintain the software that counts our votes. Wisconsin’s election clerks can do little more than trust that the vendors’ employees were all honest and competent, and that the vendors’ own security systems successfully resisted hackers. 

3. VERIFYING our election results. 

We wouldn’t have to worry about mistakes, malfunctions, or malicious code if our local election officials used our paper ballots to check the machines’ accuracy before declaring results final.

Election-Night results are only preliminary. Our local elections officials cannot declare the election results final (‘certify’ them) until they have waited for late-arriving absentee ballots and reviewed the records of the election to make sure everything is in order. Before they certify  the election results, they could verify the accuracy of the electronically counted results, and can correct any errors they discover. 

More than half the states now require local election officials to check at least a few machines’ accuracy before they can declare election results final. Many states require audits of only a small percentage of the machines, which in seldom enough to make sure they are declaring the right winners. Even a small percentage, if randomly selected, might deter hacking. 
Other states go a little farther, wisely requiring local officials to expand the sample if they find problems in the first few machines.

Since 2014, however, the recognized best practice for election auditing is something called “risk-limiting audits”, or RLA. These audits use well-tested statistical formula, made available through the University of California, to enable election officials to make sure they’ve identified the right winners. Endorsed the the Presidential Commission on Elections Administration in 2014, and promoted by the federal Elections Assistance Commission and Department of Homeland Security, the method is gaining popularity. Colorado elections officials fully implemented the method in 2017, with Rhode Island and Virginia close behind, and other states moving ahead with plans to use it.

4. Wisconsin election officials do none of these. 

Go to any town, village, city, or county offices after any election. If you ask to observe the canvass–the procedure during which election officials review the results before they ‘certify’ them–you will see no election auditing.

While election officials in more than 25 other states are checking the voting machines’ accuracy against the votes marked on the paper ballots, Wisconsin’s officials will not question or check the computer-tabulated vote totals. While our paper ballots remained sealed in plastic bags in some storeroom, our municipal and county clerks will do nothing more than check to make sure they copied the computers’ verdict correctly onto their reports.

Call your municipal and county clerk today and tell them “No more unverified election results!”

More information:

How IT experts tell us voting machines could be hacked, or compromised by corrupt insiders 

How local officials could verify voting-machine output