Dane County could begin routine post-election audits

Dane-VAR-2.jpgCross your fingers and email your county board supervisor if you live there--Dane County, Wisconsin could be on the verge of a significant improvement in prudent elections management. County Clerk Scott McDonell has submitted a budget proposal for 2015 that requests funding for routine post-election audits after every election, and these audits will include verification of voting-machine tabulations. 

We won't get these audits if County Executive Joe Parisi and county board supervisors do not approve the funding, so Dane County residents need to email Parisi at [email protected] and their county board supervisor at [email protected] with a message of support for routine post-election audits in Dane County following every election. (Include your name and your city, village, or town so that they know you are a county resident.)

Even if this budget request is approved, we won't be in election-integrity nirvana. Please don't get cynical as you read the following limitations--this is going to take persistence. Getting discouraged will only slow us down:

  • Procedures for the audits have not yet been developed. McDonell has said that the audits will include reviews of procedures--such as chain of custody control--in addition to verifying the results. He's said that the verification will include publicly observable counts of at least a sample of ballots sufficient to determine whether the voting machines in each participating municipality counted correctly. But none of this is firmly settled yet. Citizens will need to monitor the procedures' development to make sure they are truly transparent and sufficient to verify the results. 
  • McDonell seems reluctant to conduct these post-election audits until after the election results are certified by the county board of canvass. He has discussed these audits with GAB staff, who are apparently continuing their relentless advice that local officials certify raw voting-machine output as final election results, and verify its accuracy later. Reason, statutes, and national election standards are all on our side on this issue. Prompt post-election audits minimize problems with chain of custody, and protect local officials from charges of fraud because the short time reduces opportunity for tampering with the ballots. In the event an error is discovered, pre-certification audits prevent local officials from the embarrassment of certifying miscounted results and avoid costly contentious legal battles in the uncharted territory of amending certified election results. There is just no sensible argument that supports GAB staff's advice to wait to verify election results' accuracy.
  • This whole effort starts small--McDonell has requested only $2,500 in 2015, and municipalities' participation will be voluntary. (To her credit, Madison’s City Clerk Maribeth Witzel-Behl is already on board.) Municipal clerks, not county clerks, have the real statutory authority to administer elections; county clerks can lead only by persuasion and negotiation. So, McDonell will work with municipal clerks to develop the audit standards and procedures, which means citizens will have to educate and possibly cajole an additional number of municipal clerks.
  • It's not really a drawback, but we need to be ready to show up to observe the vote-counting. It would be a real setback for our cause if, after we get election officials to conduct publicly observable hand counts, no one showed up to observe them!
  • Post-election audits that take place under this new program--if it is funded--won't start until the Spring elections in 2015 at the earliest, leaving the critical November 2014 elections unprotected. Getting something in place for those elections--only a few weeks away--is an entirely separate project, for residents of all Wisconsin's counties.

Despite those limitations, this is a significant step toward election integrity-- Dane County will have crossed the threshold from merely trusting the machines’ accuracy to acknowledging the need for verification, and will be showing the way for other Wisconsin counties.

I appeared before a county board budget hearing earlier this evening (Wednesday, Sept. 10) and testified in favor of the audit funding, on behalf of the WGN Election Integrity Action Team. My oral remarks were a short version of this written testimony:

Like every county in Wisconsin, Dane County urgently needs to adopt prudent management procedures to ensure the accuracy of our election results, both to support our election officials in doing high-quality work and to deter those who have the motive, opportunity, and ability to hack our voting-machine software. We support County Clerk Scott McDonell’s budget request for routine post-election audits, and urge County Executive Joe Parisi and all county board supervisors to do the same.  

Wisconsin’s current lack of routine post-election audits comes as a surprise to most citizens, and even to many elected officials, because we all know that voting machines are just as susceptible to unexpected malfunction  as any other computers, and that if Target and Home Depot can be hacked, so can the companies that provide the software for our voting machines.  

No other government function and business uses unaudited, raw computer output to make consequential decisions, in the way that we allow unaudited voting-machine output to identify the winners of our elections.  National election-administration experts, including the prestigious Presidential Commission on Election Administration, which issued its final report in January 2014, unanimously recommend that post-election audits routinely follow every election to ensure that machine-tabulated results accurately reflect the electorate’s decision.

And yet election practice in Wisconsin, as in many other states, accepts the verdicts of our computerized vote-tabulators as final. Except when results are close enough to prompt a recount (a result closer than any deliberate hacker would ever create), we do not check our voting machines’ output for accuracy.

And it’s not just the machines that can malfunction: Because of entirely preventable lapses in the chain of custody of marked ballots, the recent recount in the 17th Senate District Democratic primary increased uncertainty instead of resolving it. That fiasco was not the first to embarrass county officials, and won’t be the last. Election procedures are not rocket science, but they are complex. Yet we expect our honest, hard-working municipal clerks to run them with volunteers who have opportunity to practice their tasks only four days a year—at most. On top of that, the only time the quality of their work is reviewed is during contentious, hurried recounts in which procedures are not designed to give them any constructive quality-assurance feedback. In no other endeavor in either government or business do we expect people—even full-time professionals--to carry out such important and consequential operations with so little opportunity for assessment and improvement of their skills.

Statutes currently give responsibility for reviewing election results for accuracy not to the State, but to counties—specifically to the county clerk and the county board of canvassers.  While statutes and the GAB offer meager guidance as to how the counties are to exercise this responsibility, it would be irresponsible for Dane County to wait to develop and implement prudent quality-assurance measures for our elections until state officials lead the way.  Please approve the county clerk’s request for funding for routine post-election audits, and support him in the implementation of that important quality-assurance task.

Once more, for people reading this blog who live in Dane County:

  1. Before the end of September, email County Executive Joe Parisi at [email protected]and  to express support for the county clerk's budget request for routine post-election auditing;
  2. Before the end of September, email the county board supervisors at [email protected] to ask them to fund routine post-election audits in Dane County following every election. If you know your own county board supervisor, contact him or her individually with the same message, which is always most powerful when it comes from a constituent.





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  • Karen McKim
    commented 2014-11-08 18:10:02 -0600
    Hi, Martha: Yes, the money is in the budget. As soon as the smoke clears from this election, we hope to be working with McDonell and municipal clerks including Madison’s Meribeth Witzel-Behl to develop procedures that truly provide the public with transparent reassurance of the elections’ integrity. I suspect that after Stoughton’s flamboyant referendum miscount, the clerks who were cool to the idea before may come around!
  • John Scepanski
    commented 2014-09-19 19:01:07 -0500
    Given the recent ruling by the federal appeals court allowing the repressive voter ID law in Wisconsin to take effect in time for this November’s election, we must be yet even more vigilant as to how the right wing manipulates our system to their advantage. Election audits are one good way to be vigilant. If we can’t get sound elections in Dane County,Wisconsin, where can we get them?
  • John Scepanski
    commented 2014-09-19 19:01:07 -0500
    Given the recent ruling by the federal appeals court allowing the repressive voter ID law in Wisconsin to take effect in time for this November’s election, we must be yet even more vigilant as to how the right wing manipulates our system to their advantage. Election audits are one good way to be vigilant. If we can’t get sound elections in Dane County,Wisconsin, where can we get them?