In addition to the things citizens can do before and after Election Day, there are a few things voters can do to protect their own individual votes from being mishandled, lost, rejected, or miscounted.
Don't think that casting an absentee ballot protects your vote--it may not. Political parties encourage the practice mostly to ensure that their voters aren't caught up in Election-Day lines or busy-ness that might keep them away from the polls, not for any reason having to do with making sure the votes get counted accurately. Election-integrity activists who advise absentee voting are usually concerned with being forced to use vulnerable touch-screen machines at the polls. However, in Wisconsin you can always demand a paper ballot.
Voting absentee has its own set of risks. If your county uses paper ballots--either hand-counted or scanned--you can insert your own vote into the machine or the ballot box when you vote on Election Day. If you vote absentee, you're counting on someone else to keep your ballot safe until Election Day and then make sure it gets included in the ballots as they are counted. If you make a mistake on your ballot when you use an optical-scan machine on Election Day, the machine will reject your ballot and you will have a chance to correct the error. There's no second chance with an absentee ballot. A final risk with absentee ballots is that you or someone else might make a mistake on the envelope in which you submit your ballot, and it might be rejected without you ever knowing it.
To increase the odds that your vote will be counted accurately, here are some other suggestions:
If your polling place uses touch-screen voting machines, ask for a paper ballot when you vote on Election Day and encourage others to do the same. If poll workers try to talk you into using the touch-screen, politely explain that you know touch-screen machines create paper audit trails, but the chances are miniscule anyone will ever look at them. Say that you want to create the secure, hard-copy record of your own vote.
If you do use the touch-screen, be sure to check the printed paper trail before you finish casting your vote. If the paper trail shows a different candidate than the one you intended to vote for, call a poll worker over immediately, have him or her watch as you cancel and re-cast the ballot, and tell the chief inspector that you want the incident noted on the Inspector's Report. If there are any observers in the polling place from election-integrity groups such as the League of Women Voters, ask the observer to step outside (he or she cannot talk to you while in the polling place) and ask the observer to watch for later voters having similar issues. IT security experts believe the most likely type of hack on a touch-screen machine with a paper audit trail would be one in which the flipped vote is actually show to the voter, which is surprisingly safe from detection because most voters do not look at the paper trail or report problems they see if they do look.
If your ballot is rejected by an optical scanner or if a touch-screen shows you voted for a candidate other than you intended, be sure to mention it to the chief inspector--even if you can figure out how to fix the problem yourself. Minor voting-machine problems can often be quickly resolved. Even so, a pattern of small problems can reveal the presence of a larger one--but only if people report the small problems.
Regardless of whether your problem is corrected, ask the chief inspector to record the incident on the "Inspector's Report." This report is the only way the problem will be noted and considered in any future efforts to improve election administration.
If you witness a serious machine malfunction on Election Day, call Wisconsin Election Protection at 1-866-OUR-VOTE (1-866-687-8683) or tweet @EPWisco.
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