Election Integrity Blog

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Legislation to make recounts even less likely than they are now

The Wisconsin legislature is set to amend state elections law pertaining to recounts under s.9.01, Wis.Stats, in a way that makes no sense with respect either to partisan interests or to election integrity.  The only thing that can be motivating the proposed provisions of Senate Bill 96 is a child-like trust in the reliability of the computers inside our voting machines.

BankRecountCartoon.jpgUnder both current law and the proposed amendment, any candidate can request a recount, but they are required to pay the cost of the recount unless the margin of victory is small. Under current law, election officials will recount the preliminary results at no cost if the computers tabulated a victory margin less than one-half of one percent, and candidates must pay $5 per ward if the margin is between 0.5% and 2.0%. If the computer output gave the victor a margin of more than 2%, the loser must pay the full cost of any recount.

Under the proposed legislation, election officials will perform recounts at no cost only if the margin is less than 0.25%. Candidates will have to pay the actual cost for all other recounts, although the cost of the recount will be refunded if the recount overturns the preliminary results.

Although this legislation is being sponsored and promoted by Republicans--Senator Devin LeMahieu of Oostburg and Rep. Joan Ballweg of Markesan--Republican candidates are just as likely to be hurt as any other candidates—perhaps more likely, depending upon who you assume is most willing and able to commit electronic election fraud.  

And the legislation will hurt every citizen who cherishes our freedom to exercise our right to self-government, regardless of party affiliation. Here’s why:

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Sometimes you have to use your imagination...

The world of elections administration can sometimes be a little surreal, so I occasionally play mind games to keep myself grounded in common sense.

Mind game #1: When the difficulty of advocating for post-election audits gets me down, I imagine that the US had done what the IT professionals recommended from the start: Included routine verification of the machines' output into election routines all along. Then I imagine how hard it would be if we were trying to convince people to give up routine post-election audits. Not only would we be ridiculed, we'd probably be suspected of criminal intentions.

Mind game #2: Imagine that you are the elections clerk in a city that has a routine, normal habit of making the voter-marked paper ballots available for public inspection after every election. The partisan crazies learned years ago that wrangling over individual ballots was wasted time and energy. Now they, like all the citizens and candidates (and all the would-be election thieves) are accustomed to having the ability to verify the accuracy of the election results if they want to. Now imagine your mayor orders you to seal the ballots up on Election Night, store them under lock and key for many months, and then incinerate them before they ever see the light of day.  Can you imagine any honorable motives for the mayor's order? How would you explain this policy change to the residents of your city?

Mind game #3: Imagine that you are a computer programmer who has been employed by a voting machine company or an independent testing lab for a decade or so. You've come to know the software and how the program updates and patches are distributed among the various jurisdictions. You know which jurisdictions use which type of machines; that none of them perform routine post-election audits; and that none will ever recount any race in which the results have more than a 2% spread between the winner and the candidate who came in second. You know that when miscounts are discovered, there's never an independent investigation, so that in the extremely unlikely event your miscount is noticed, you'll be able to say "Darn it, a glitch!" and go on with your work. You know that some are willing to pay millions for what you have to sell.

On this honor system, would you resist the temptation of making a few elections come out the way you want them to--or would you go ahead and do it? Knowing that there are many people like this today, how do you suppose they resist the temptation to make some elections come out they way they want--or do they?

That last mind game isn't very much fun; I don't play it often.

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Unregistered Dust Bunnies May be Voting in Wisconsin Elections: Stoughton Miscount Update

IVotedDustBunny.jpgAfter the polls closed in Stoughton, Wisconsin last November 4, workers in three of the city’s four polling stations were surprised to see their voting machines had counted no votes for a municipal referendum. A different puzzle confronted the poll workers in the fourth polling station. In a precinct where 1,255 voters had cast ballots, the output tape indicated the machine had counted 16 votes (9 no, 7 yes.)

The main problem was rapidly diagnosed as a set-up error that sent all four optical scanners looking for referendum votes in a blank section on the back of the ballot, rather than in the ovals that voters had filled in. Had the error simply looked for 'yes' votes in the 'no' spot and vice-versa, the referendum would have failed and no one would ever have noticed the mistake under Wisconsin's current, ineffective post-election audit policies, However, because the error was so dramatic, a prompt hand count revealed the true results, which were certified on schedule.

But the mystery of the 16 votes remained. It was not possible that the optical scanners could have recognized 16 actual votes and ignored the rest.  Those were phantom votes, cast by no one. What caused them?

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Correction to earlier blog post: Are our election results ever audited?

(You are reading a blog post on a legacy website that is no longer actively maintained. Visit WisconsinElectionIntegrity.org for current information and discussion.)

A few days after I posted a letter to the chair of the UW Statistics Department here, in which I asked for a volunteer to help develop efficient procedures for verifying Wisconsin’s voting- machine output, I received a cordial email from David Buerger, Elections Specialist at Wisconsin’s Government Accountability Board. He took issue with several statements in that letter, and I appreciate his willingness to communicate and to speak up. I replied that I would review his comments and update this blog if I saw anything that merited correction.

The entire text of his remarks is here but for brevity’s sake, I’ll summarize. Buerger objected most strongly to my statement that “Our election officials never check to see whether our voting machines produce accurate counts,” except in the case of a recount. Buerger characterized that statement as ‘patently false.’

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The 'Wait-What' Face

WaitWhatFace.jpgI’ve come to recognize a certain facial expression—eyes open wide, brow slightly furrowed, chin pulled in—that signals when someone gets it for the first time: Wait. What? Our official election results are nothing more than unverified computer output? That’s really dangerous! 

I set a new record today. I saw it on five faces simultaneously.

I was in a quiet, well-run village, which I’ll call Bedford Falls. Within a few days before every election, every Wisconsin municipality publicly tests its voting machines. The statutory purpose is to demonstrate to the public that the machines have been programmed to count votes accurately. However, since the public never shows up, the municipal clerks use the tests for other useful purposes. Today, the Bedford Falls clerk was using the test as an opportunity to train a few new poll workers and give the experienced poll workers some special instructions pertaining only to this election.

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Yeah, but can they hack Milwaukee County or Command Central?

hackers.jpgToday's news brought a tale of a new security breach, this one at Anthem, a health insurance company that manages terabytes of health and financial data and has annual revenue of $73.9 billion--yes, billion with a b. Just imagine the cyber-security resources available to Anthem and the likes of Sony, Staples, Home Depot, JP Morgan Chase, Michaels, and Target--all real-world victims of hacking.

If none of these companies were able to prevent malicious interference, what chance do our shoestring-funded elections officials and their vendors have? How can we possibly expect them to protect our election results, with their voting-machine keys earnestly locked in the clerk's desk and their tamper-evident plastic seals carefully placed on every voting machine stored in the courthouse basement?

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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.

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Partisan interests drive focus of GAB Audit

In the early 1980s, bookstores were featuring a book clearly aimed at baby boomers like me who were just then entering our thirties. Life Extension: A Practical Scientific Approach promised its readers could live for a healthy 100 years. Knowing basic mortality statistics, I checked to see whether the authors had addressed the leading cause of premature death for my age group. I looked in the index for 'seat belts' and found nothing. I looked for any mention of drunk driving–still socially acceptable at that time. Nothing. 

LAB-GAB.jpgHow scientific could the book be if it neither mentioned the major risk of premature death nor described the easy practical steps that could reduce it? That book came to mind as I read the recently released Legislative Audit Bureau evaluation of the Government Accountability Board.


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The Stoughton Referendum Miscount

Four months ago, on July 7, citizens in Stoughton, Wisconsin presented their city clerk's office with petitions bearing enough signatures to get a Move to Amend referendum on the November ballot. City voters would be asked if they wanted a constitutional amendment overturning Citizens United--that is, putting an end to corporate personhood rights and the notion that money is constitutionally protected speech. This same referendum has been racking up 75-80 percent of the vote in other communities around Wisconsin.

Last Tuesday, nearly 5,350 good citizens of Stoughton went to the polls. If you believe the city's voting machines, exactly 16 of them had an opinion they cared to express on the matter. The rest thought "Whatevs" and left the referendum blank.

Fortunately, no one believes the city's voting machines. The municipal canvass board wisely declined to certify those results and will instead hold a public hand count on Monday, November 10.

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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.)

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