Reaching out: Cross your fingers we can get more help for Wisconsin elections

We've given enough Election Integrity Road Shows now that I am pretty darn confident that we can awaken any clerk who will listen to the vulnerability of electronically counted election results and to the need for verification of voting-machine output.

The next barrier we need to overcome is helping the willing county clerks to develop efficient methods of performing this verification in the week following each election. For that, we need statistical expertise that none of the active members of the EI Action Team seem to have.

So, I've shot a distress signal into the air--or more specifically, in the direction of the UW-Madison Statistics Department. This afternoon, I dropped the following letter into the mail to the department chair, Prof. Brian Yandell. I chose the statistics department because the American Statistical Association has offered valuable  and well-respected advice on post-election auditing, and the statistical angle of post-election auditing seems to be a large source of election officials' hesitance.

I have no idea if this kind of a plea will get a response, but we've got several clerks now who are genuinely interested in making improvements and we have no specific advice to offer them.

If anyone else reading this blog post knows of anyone who can counsel, or help us counsel, county clerks on methods of efficiently auditing the accuracy of voting-machine output, please let me know in the comments section below. Thanks!

(Update to blog post, February 2015: David Buerger, Elections Specialist at GAB, took exception to several statements in the following letter. Read more here.)

The letter to Prof. Yandell:

Dear Chairman Yandell:

I’m the coordinator of a statewide group, the Wisconsin Grassroots Network Election Integrity Action Team, and am writing to let you know of a community need (statewide, actually) for statistical consultation on a very practical civic topic. I am wondering whether anyone in the UW-Madison statistics department knows of anyone who might consult—for free, unfortunately—with our group or with willing county and municipal clerks relating to the following topic.

The problem: Wisconsin’s voting machines have all the normal vulnerabilities of any other computer—accidental mis-programming; unexpected malfunction; and deliberate fraudulent mis-programming. That’s not surprising or controversial—it’s a simple fact of life.

What most Wisconsin residents find shocking, however, is that our elections officials never check to see whether our voting machines produce accurate counts, except in the relatively rare case of a very close result when a loser demands a recount. The outcomes of the vast majority of our elections are determined based on nothing more than unverified raw computer output.

Whether this has ever caused the wrong person to be sworn into office, your guess is as good as anyone else’s. Our grocery-store checkout scanners are subject to more rigorous oversight.

The cause:  Almost all of Wisconsin’s elections officials, based on inadequate and naïve counsel from the staff of our state Government Accountability Board, are completely unaware of any way to verify voting-machine accuracy that does not involve a complete hand count of 100% of the ballots—an effort they consider to be too great a cost. This naiveté causes most of them to reject without consideration any proposal to verify machine output as a routine feature of elections administration.  

Wisconsin’s county and municipal clerks are either unaware of the post-election audit recommendations of multiple national authorities (the Presidential Commission on Election Administration; the Brennan Center for Justice; and the Federal Elections Commission, to name a few), including the American Statistical Association (http://www.amstat.org/policy/pdfs/Risk-limiting_Endorsement.pdf), or they choose not to consider them because they don’t understand them.

What needs to be done:  I have come to the point where I am confident I can convince any clerk who will listen of the vulnerability of his or her election results to electronic miscount, and of the imprudence of implicitly trusting their raw output. However, even with concerned clerks, I am running into a brick wall with the problem of explaining how any sort of statistical methods could be useful to them. Although I trust the likes of the ASA, I do not have the expertise to explain how statistical techniques could be used by Wisconsin county clerks to, for example, select races to be verified or to select a sample of precincts or ballots.

(Aside: Neither staff nor board members of the state GAB can be of any help in this, due to multiple current constraints on them. We have had some success in convincing GAB to at least stay out of the way—the best I think we can hope for. But GAB’s lack of leadership need not be a problem because Wisconsin statutes place the responsibility for accurate election results on the county clerks anyway.)

The request: I would like to meet with a knowledgeable statistics professional or academic—faculty, grad student, or upperclass applied-statistics major, to explain the situation in more depth and see whether we could work out a win-win arrangement that would allow the WGN Election Integrity effort to bring some practical statistical consultation to Wisconsin county clerks. (Dane County is particularly ripe for this in early 2015, for several reasons I can explain in a meeting.)

I realize the statistical complexity of this issue is too simple to be of much interest to most statistics professionals, but its applied, real-world aspects may be of interest to some. Its benefits are hard to overstate if we can protect Wisconsin’s future elections from miscount. It’s no exaggeration to say that our right to self-government hangs in the balance, because would-be election thieves are certainly aware of our system’s vulnerabilities and that our county clerks currently make no efforts to detect their handiwork.

If you are not interested, could you please forward this letter to another whom you think might be willing and able to devote some pro-bono effort to helping to protect Wisconsin election results from the threat of undetected electronic miscounts?  

If you are interested, please contact me, Karen McKim, at (cell phone), (personal email), or (home address); or leave a comment on our Election Integrity blog: www.wisconsingrassroots.net/election_integrity_blog.

I’m hoping to hear from you or another interested person in time to protect our November 2016 elections from undetected miscounts. We have two lower-profile elections in 2015 for practice.

Sincerely,

Karen McKim, Coordinator

WGN Election Integrity Action Team


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