Voters need election officials to build confidence, not demand trust

VotingMachineTest.jpgIf we want citizens to come out and vote, they need to have confidence, not trust. To build confidence, we need to produce evidence.

In the past two weeks, many of the comments and questions I've encountered have had to do with voters' trust in elections. The first question from Mike Crute in the Devil’s Advocates radio interview was “So tell me. Can we trust the voting machines?” More recently, a county board supervisor wrote an email declaring his “complete trust” in the county clerk, in an attempt to persuade his constituents they should trust the unverified output of their voting machines.

Well, can we trust? Heck, let’s dig deeper: Should we try to trust? What is trust, anyway?

Human society cannot exist without trust. It's a good thing. In some situations, even pure trust is a good thing. For example, a marriage is in trouble when a spouse needs proof that his or her partner remained faithful during a week-long separation.

In other situations, we typically choose to trust as far as we can and then look for some way to limit our sense of risk—something to build confidence. For example, we can take our cars out of the garage only by placing at least a little trust in car manufacturers, our mechanic and the other drivers on the road. We then build confidence by buckling our seat belts and driving defensively.

We can open and use a charge account only by trusting the banks, at least a little. We then build confidence by checking the monthly statement.

We can go to the polls and feed our ballots into an optical scanner only when we have at least a little trust in that machine and those elections officials. We then build our confidence by ... what?

We have three options when we’re asked to participate in some endeavor (a marriage, driving, banking, voting) in which we don’t have complete control:

  1. Give our pure trust, that is, make a willful choice to believe in the safety or security of the endeavor;
  2. Build confidence by taking as many precautions as we individually can, such as when we wear our seat belt and drive defensively; or
  3. Build confidence by seeking and examining evidence in the safety or security of the endeavor, such as when we check our credit-card statements.

In elections, the first option would be foolish. If all the honest upstanding citizens simply trusted, the dishonest power-hungry ones would be drawn to elections administration like ants to a picnic basket. Regardless, this attitude is frequently evident. For example, the county board supervisor mentioned above wrote: “I have complete trust in the county clerk’s professional expertise in voting systems and his strong commitment to election integrity.” He provided no confidence-building suggestions about what voters could do for themselves, analogous to fastening our seat belts. He neither cited nor promised any confidence-building evidence about the accuracy of election results, analogous to giving us a credit-card statement or an independent audit report. He offered voters nothing beyond a simple plea for pure trust.

The second option is impractical in elections. Voters can do only so much as individuals to reduce the risk their votes will be tabulated incorrectly. We can be sure to fill our ballots out exactly as instructed, and we can vote in person on Election Day to reduce any possibility that our ballot won’t find its way to the voting machine. Highly motivated individuals can observe pre-election voting machine tests—they aren’t actively publicized—but those tests address only the risk of incorrect machine set-up and are irrelevant with regard to Election-Day malfunction and deliberate hacking. So even if every test was done perfectly and even if public witnesses attended every one, their confidence-building value would remain limited. Similarly, being told of pre-election security measures merely redefines but does not resolve the voters' worries. The question "Did the machines count right on Election Day?" becomes "Were the pre-election security measures successful?"--and remains unanswered.

That leaves one option for building voter confidence: Provide citizens with evidence that their votes were tabulated correctly on Election Day. This is where the pay dirt is. 

In 2012, more than a million angry Wisconsin citizens forced the governor into a contentious and bitter recall election. When the voting machines’ tabulations eliminated the opportunity for a transparent recount, some voters could summon no willful trust in the election results, and predictably sought evidence. Around Wisconsin, at least two separate groups of election-integrity activists began to file open-records requests to get access to the ballots, memory cards, or other election records for the purpose of conducting citizens’ audits.

Most of the clerks did not welcome those requests. To paraphrase a composite response:

“That’s illegal. Well, okay, it’s not illegal. But it should be; we'll work to make it illegal. In the meantime, I can make it very expensive. Only we can touch the ballots, so we have to count while you watch. Or would you rather we make copies of the ballots and charge you 25 cents each?

And forget about seeing the software. I already sent the memory sticks back to the vendor where the data were probably destroyed. If they weren’t destroyed, I’ll charge you a $235 location fee to retrieve them.

And what you’re doing is unnecessary anyway. This office programmed the memory sticks; no one else saw or touched them. We tested them by ourselves right here in this office. As soon as the polls closed, the records were locked up so that only I had access. If that’s not enough to make you trust the election results, then you’re being paranoid and unreasonable.”

You can hardly craft a response more corrosive of voters' confidence. Most of us don't get beyond the age of four without learning to distrust people who don't want to show us what they're hiding behind their backs.

But that wasn't the only response the citizens got from Wisconsin's county clerks. I was working with one of the groups, the one that was attempting citizen hand counts of the paper ballots (temporarily, it turned out—for several reasons, I quickly distanced myself.) When the group’s attorney, Jim Mueller, approached former Rock County Clerk Lori Stottler to obtain access to the records, she responded along the lines of:

“I’m always eager to build confidence in elections. I can figure out a way to enable you to see and work with the ballots. I’ll publicize the event and maybe we can get even more people interested.”

When citizens showed up to conduct the hand count, she gave them latex gloves to work around a state requirement that the ballots could be touched only by election officials; graciously instructed them in efficient methods of hand-counting; and worked at their side while sharing detailed knowledge of each precinct. Even the grumpiest among the group could not help but be favorably impressed with the clerk’s eager willingness to show off the evidence of the quality and reliability of Rock County's elections. They observed the records to be in perfect order and determined that the county’s voting machines had counted accurately. You can imagine the effect that had on the group’s trust in Stottler and their confidence in Rock County elections.

But there’s at least one more option. Imagine what would happen if, the next time citizens have a hard time accepting election results, the county clerk was able to respond:

“You can count the votes if you want, but in this county we never certify election results until we are sure they are correct. Here’s a copy of the videotape of the public verification that followed that election; the verification team’s report was included in the canvass report. If you wish, I can put you in touch with one or more of the public witnesses who observed that count, who will be able to vouch for the results. Would you like me to put you on the list of those who want to be notified of the time and place of the verifications that will follow the next election?”

Here's my guess: That last scenario is nonsensical. In any county where the clerk can respond like that to voter mistrust, there will be no voter mistrust.

Voter confidence in elections is not a rainbow unicorn, something we can only imagine and never achieve. Neither is it anything we can summon on demand. It has to be earned, but it can be earned by any county clerk who is willing to deploy the imagination, courage, and initiative to work within current law and make the most of the technology available to him or her, and to treat reasonable voters’ reasonable requests with the respect they deserve.

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