Elections Technology: Recording and Tabulating our Votes Correctly

1. RECORDING our votes

Hand-marked paper ballots. In jurisdictions that use paper-ballot systems, voters can make sure, with 100% confidence, that their votes are accurately recorded. Simply follow instructions carefully and inspect the ballot closely before inserting it into the tabulator.  These ballots are always an accurate record of the voter’s choices.

Computer-printed ballots. In some polling places–particularly early-voting locations in the larger cities– voters cannot mark their own ballots, but must rely on a computer to record of their votes. Sometimes these computes print out individual paper ballots; in older machines, the votes are printed on a tape that the voter can view only through a little window.

As with any computer, these machines can malfunction or be misprogrammed so that they don’t record the voter’s actual selections. Because no one but the voter knows which votes the computer was supposed to print on the ballot, no one will notice a malfunctioning ballot-printer if the voter doesn’t. So voters must be vigilant when using computers to mark their ballots. Do not rely on the information displayed on the screen; a malfunctioning ballot printer could display one candidate’s name on the screen, but on the printed ballot, fail to record a vote in that race; record something illegible, or record the wrong vote.

For their part, poll workers need continuously to remind voters to check the paper trail before casting their votes, and to take any reports of errors seriously.  If the poll workers where you vote, using a ballot-marking computer, are not telling voters to verify the PAPER ballots, contact your municipal clerk.

2. COUNTING our votes.

Many smaller Wisconsin jurisdictions still rely on hand counts, which routinely include a double-check 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 separately counted the votes and agree on the total.

But most of Wisconsin’s votes are counted by computers called tabulators. These machines count our votes only once–by software written in proprietary secrecy by programmers employed by private companies. There is no double-check or verification, although the programmers are in other states or even other countries. Our election officials hope and trust that those programmers are all authorized employees or contractors of the companies, but there’s no way them to notice if the voting-machine companies were hacked.  

A note on counting ballots versus counting votes: Tabulators count both. Wisconsin’s local elections officials are justifiably proud of their rigorous efforts to make sure the voting machines counted the correct number of ballots. This is a good thing; it means they are being alert for signs of what’s called ‘retail’ election fraud–voters casting additional ballots.

But that safeguard is powerless to detect or prevent ‘wholesale’ election fraud, in which the voting machines are misprogrammed to manipulate the vote totals for each candidate, without altering the total number of ballots. Speak with your municipal clerk about the measures they use to verify that the tabulators counted the correct number of votes for each candidate. Chances are, they use no such measures, and choose instead to rely exclusively on hope and trust that nothing went wrong on Election Day.

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, tabulators 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 not discovered until long after the election results were certified and the winners sworn in to office. In March 2005, 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 tabulators anyway. In 2016, in Racine, a similar problem (voters using the wrong type of pen, and poll workers poorly instructed) disenfranchised up to 6% of the voters in some wards. Yet election officials there did not notice the problem until observers at a recount pointed it out. Then, to the voters’ shock but not the officials’, the problem was not resolved and officials again certified the incorrect vote totals after the recount!

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 picking the winners of Wisconsin elections 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 as of 2018 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 to conduct audits before certification that verify the machines identified the correct winners (not just spot-checks that confirm a few machines counted correctly.) These audits, sometimes called “risk-limiting audits”, or RLAs, use well-tested statistical formulas 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 declare them final) 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