Three lessons from our Fighting Bobfest booth

Mary Lou Sharpee, John Washburn, and I got a lot of practice educating people about vote-counting as we staffed a successful election integrity information booth at Bobfest. All three of us were at the booth from start to finish at the all-day conference in Madison on Saturday, September 7, and I’m pleased to report attendees had enough interest to keep all three of us talking pretty much continuously.

Mary Lou Sharpee and John Washburn at Bobfest booth


First lesson: People sure do want to see inside their voting machines! While Mary Lou and I handed out brochures and encouraged people to sign up for our mailing list, John pulled them in with his voting machines. He and Jim Mueller had lugged in four voting machines—two op scans and two touch screens—and John opened up one of each to show people the insides. Those machines really drew people in. During the eight hours we were there, John must have opened and reclosed the touch screen 50 times to demonstrate how to get inside without breaking the tamperproof seal. Our big excitement came when a reporter with Huffington Post press credentials stopped by to videotape John’s presentation.
John Washburn demonstrating voting equipment at Bobfest

Second, I gained a deeper appreciation for the marketing experts’ advice to lead with a positive message. We quickly learned the pamphlet most people would grab was the one we could tout as “Five easy things citizens can do under current law to make sure our votes are counted accurately or to catch it when they are not.” Five hundred copies disappeared by 4:00 PM.

Third, I learned (again) not to underestimate the emotional power of denial when people first consider the idea that elections technology is vulnerable to the same mistakes, malfunctions, and malice that threaten every other computer, but is subject to much less rigorous oversight.

I was sadly amused by the three or four who repeatedly said "I'm a skeptic" when challenging the notion that voting machines might count incorrectly. I stayed in my marketing-booth mode and played along with their preferred self-image as I spoke with these men (yes, they were all men.) But if our conversations had been in the backyard over beers, I would have challenged them:

  • On what planet do skeptics accept machine-counted election results as final and true, when the machinery and operations that produce them are subject to only a fraction of the regulation and auditing we routinely expect for the grocery-store scanner that charges us for our laundry detergent?
  • Do you skeptics imagine that the motive to overcharge us for laundry detergent is stronger than the motive to steal our government?
  • As a skeptic, can you explain to me why until now you have believed without evidence that your vote is counted accurately by a voting machine manufactured by a private firm in another state; approved by a toothless federal agency; regulated by an understaffed and intimidated state agency; and managed by technologically naive local officials?
  • How is it that a skeptic like you is comfortable with software inside your precinct’s machine that has been ‘updated’ by a single anonymous programmer (or whomever hacked in after him); is never examined after it’s loaded into your machine; and is protected from independent examination by claims of ‘proprietary trade secret’?

 “I’m a skeptic” was the most amusing phrase, but “I trust” was spoken more often by those who didn’t want to acknowledge voting machines’ fallibility.

I have more sympathy for the trusters than the self-styled "skeptics." For one thing, they are more honest with themselves about the nature of their beliefs. For another, I can see their point, at least in part. An election is a complex process in which many people carry out hundreds of tasks. In our own municipalities, we know many of the election officials personally and can vouch for their integrity. Everything we can see—the registration process; the marking of the poll books; the fact that the machine seems to be working smoothly when votes are cast; the poll-closing reconciliation of the number of voters with the number of ballots— is done well in the vast majority of cases.

So I'm not surprised when normal human beings assume the one unseen process—the tabulation of our votes—is also done right.

The most dramatic reaction I encountered was from a man who introduced himself as a Madison poll worker. After he took a pamphlet from my hand, our short conversation went something like this:

Trusty (smiling): “I know what goes on in Madison, and I trust our results are accurate.”

Me (smiling): “You trust, but you don’t know.”

Trusty answered as if he was sharing information rather than arguing: “Oh, yes. I know. We count the votes ourselves.”

I had a brief, shining vision that one polling place might be taking initiative to check the accuracy of its machine. “Really? You hand-count the ballots and check the machine’s count? Or do you mean that you press a button and get a print-out?”

“We just press a button.”

“Oh, so you don’t really know.”

Trusty’s smile disappeared. “Now you’re making me want to give this pamphlet back to you.”

I tried to be gentle: “The point is that, as hard as you work on the elections, you don’t control what goes on inside the machine.”

“Okay, that’s it. I’ve heard enough.” With that, he threw our pamphlet back on the table, grabbed his daughter’s hand, and walked off.

Here’s what I think happened. When we’re talking to people who care deeply about democracy and self-government, we’re dealing with something stronger than intellectual processes. We’re dealing with a deep emotional investment. This guy LOVES his elections, and is rightfully proud of his contribution. 

Imagine the reaction of someone who had been saving for retirement with an investment firm and you just accurately pointed out he has no evidence his adviser isn’t another Bernie Madoff. Imagine an artist who sent his masterpiece away with a truck driver for delivery to a gallery, and you just pointed out he hadn’t checked the driver’s credentials to make sure he wasn’t an art thief.

Before our conversation, the Madison poll worker had never made a distinction between counting the votes and pressing a button, and its implications hit him like a punch to the gut. I don’t know if there’s any easy way to break the news to these intensely committed lovers of democracy.  This particular one threw our written materials back at us, so he has nothing to read and think about when he calms down.

In this case, I’ll be the one who chooses to trust. I trust that his love of democracy and his deep commitment to the quality of our elections will cause him to think it through for himself. Next time we run into him, I trust he will be ready to join us in the fight for verified accurate election results. 

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