Purpose of the Pre-election Machine Test
New instructions have to be loaded into each voting machine before each election so that it can record and count votes for that election’s unique set of races and candidates. But whenever new programming is loaded into any computer, opportunities for error arise.
Pre-election testing is intended to detect machine malfunctions and programming errors in time to fix them before Election Day.
Pre-election tests can detect most accidental mis-programming, but not deliberate hacking because skillful programmers would know not to allow their hacks to manipulate vote totals before Election Day.
In addition, clerks sometimes use pre-election voting-machine tests for training new poll workers in how to operate the machines.
What happens at a pre-election voting machine test?
The Wisconsin Government Accountability Board (GAB) has prepared a seven-minute video showing a voting-machine test. This test can be performed by the municipal elections clerk or someone that he or she designates. Before the test, the municipal clerk prepares a “test deck”, a set of marked ballots or a series of votes to be entered into the touch-screen machine, with a predetermined correct result.
The voting machine will be set up just as it will be on Election Day and turned on. The clerk will run a ‘zero tape’ to make sure that no votes are stored in the machine’s memory.
Someone then feeds the ballots through the optical scanner, or two people will enter them into the touch-screen machine. (Two people are needed to test the votes on the touch-screen to make sure the votes are cast as planned.)
The machine will be shut down using the same procedure that will be used at poll closing on Election Day. The results will be printed out and compared to the expected results. If the machine produces different results than the clerk expected, the clerk must determine what caused the discrepancy and correct it.
Purposes of observing
Without observers, the clerk is unable to demonstrate to the public that the voting machines have been set up correctly. If something goes wrong on Election Day and no observers were present at the test, the clerk might be suspected of having done the test carelessly or not at all.
The mere presence of observers—even if they say nothing—helps to ensure the tests are performed thoroughly and in accordance with instructions. If the machine does not produce results that match the pre-determined results, the presence of citizen observers helps to ensure that the problems are adequately addressed.
In addition, conscientious clerks welcome public observers because they know that citizen observers can help them build a good reputation and confidence in well-run elections.
Finally, because voting machine tests are often relatively relaxed, unhurried occasions, they provide a good opportunity for citizens to get to know the municipality’s election equipment and procedures better, and to allow the municipal clerk and interested citizens to get to know each other and develop mutual respect for their shared interest in accurate election results.
What should observers do and what should they watch for?1. Call your municipal clerk about two weeks before the election to ask when and where the voting-machine test(s) will take place. By law, the tests cannot take place any earlier than 10 days before the election.
Specifically mentioning the GAB instructions reassures the clerk that you have realistic expectations and will give him or her opportunity to refresh his or her memory about those instructions before the test.2. Bring a copy of the relevant sections of the statute and the instructions from the Election Administration Manual (both are below) so that you can refer to them as the test proceeds. Read them ahead of time; they are not difficult.
3. Follow these general instructions for observers.
4. Arrive early or on time so that you can observe the machines being set up, if they were not set up ahead of time. This may not go quickly and smoothly if the testers are still learning how to set the machines up. Their set-up efforts, however, should end with a voting machine that is operating correctly and has printed out a tape showing that no votes are stored in the computer’s memory.
5. Ask to see the test deck and the predetermined results, and ask the clerk to show you how the test deck conforms with the statute and the instructions from the Election Administration Manual. See the starred items (*) below.
An issue you should know about: GAB's written instructions for the test (unlike the video) neglect to tell the clerk that the test deck should contain a different number of votes for each candidate (no ties), although this is essential if the test is going to be able to detect what is likely the most common set-up error: 'flipping' the votes--that is, accidentally instructing the machine to count Jones' votes for Smith, and Smith's votes for Jones. Every clerk understands the necessity of this once it is pointed out to them, so if your clerk has created a test deck giving candidates in any contest the same number of votes as another candidate, ask him or her to create one more ballot that breaks all the ties.
No instructions specify how large the test deck should be, and many clerks do not understand that some errors cannot be detected in very small tests. For example, several elections were ruined in California by a programming error that made the machine ‘zero out’ after the first 100 ballots and start the count from zero again at the 101st ballot. If your clerk uses a very small test deck (10 or less is very common), suggest that he or she look into the wisdom and feasibility of running a larger test in subsequent elections.6. Ask questions throughout the process, as long as your questions don’t interfere with the purpose of the test or slow the test down more than the officials are willing to accommodate your questions.
7. When the test ballots have all been cast and the results printed out, the clerk will compare the results tabulated by the machine to the predetermined results he or she prepared ahead of time. The clerk should allow you to see, if not handle, the documents so that you, as an independent observer, can confirm that the results are the same.
8. If the machine-tabulated results don’t agree with the predetermined results, the clerk needs to figure out what the problem is. The clerk may conclude that the machine is correct and his or her predetermined results were in error. For example, the clerk might decide he or she was mistaken about the color of ink the machine is able to read, or how overvotes or undervotes were to be processed. If this is the case, discuss the issue and try to discourage the clerk from merely assuming the discrepancy was caused by his or her error without checking.
An issue you should know about: Unless your county clerk has provided your municipal clerk with additional instructions, he or she will have no instructions to follow if the two counts cannot be reconciled. Nevertheless, if this happens, expect the municipal clerk promptly to notify the county clerk of the problem. Observers should follow up with both county and municipal clerk to make sure that the machines are used on Election Day have produced an errorless count, in this municipality and elsewhere in the county, as required by statute.
What to do if you see problems
If you see any practices that don’t match the instructions, ask the clerk to explain. There may be some necessary, harmless variations the clerk is doing for a sensible reason. As long as the main purpose of the test is fulfilled—a public demonstration of an errorless count—there’s no need for observers to be sticklers.
If the clerk cannot give you a good explanation for the variation, and you think the variation prevents the test from demonstrating an errorless count, refer the clerk to the precise requirement or instruction that you believe is not being followed. Explain the reason for your concern.
For example, if the machine-tabulated results do not match the predetermined results, a clerk might call an end to the test, saying that he or she will return to the office and figure out the problem. If this happens, you could say something like, "Determining whether the machine has produced an errorless count is part of the test, and statutes say the test needs to be open to the public. If you return to your office to figure out and fix the problem, how and when will you perform the errorless count in a public test?”
Try to work something out with the clerk that meets both his or her needs and your own need to observe an errorless count, always keeping your demands centered on the statutory requirements and the Election Administration Manual instructions.
If you cannot work out a mutually satisfactory resolution with the municipal clerk, encourage him or her to contact the county clerk about the matter, and say you will do the same. Write down the relevant details of the problem promptly, clearly, factually, and completely. Then call or email the county clerk to report the problem and ask to be kept informed as the problem is resolved.
If the problem is not resolved by early afternoon on the Friday before the election, contact the Elections Division of the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board, before the close of business that day if at all possible, to give GAB staff at least one working day before Election Day to respond. GAB can be reached by phone at (608) 266-8005, or email at [email protected]. Consider completing a complaint form (gab.wi.gov/forms/complaint ), and faxing it to GAB at (608) 267-0500.
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Excerpt from Wisconsin State Statutes:
Pre-Election Voting-Machine Testing (Paragraph breaks added.)
5.84 Testing of equipment; requirements for programs and ballots.
(1) Where any municipality employs an electronic voting system which utilizes automatic tabulating equipment, either at the polling place or at a central counting location, the municipal clerk shall, on any day not more than 10 days prior to the election day on which the equipment is to be utilized, have the equipment tested to ascertain that it will correctly count the votes cast for all offices and on all measures.
Public notice of the time and place of the test shall be given by the clerk at least 48 hours prior to the test by publication of a class 1 notice under ch. 985 in one or more newspapers published within the municipality if a newspaper is published therein, otherwise in a newspaper of general circulation therein.
The test shall be open to the public.
The test shall be conducted by processing a preaudited group of ballots so marked as to record a predetermined number of valid votes for each candidate and on each referendum.
* The test shall include for each office one or more ballots which have votes in excess of the number allowed by law and, for a partisan primary election, one or more ballots which have votes cast for candidates of more than one recognized political party, in order to test the ability of the automatic tabulating equipment to reject such votes.
If any error is detected, the municipal clerk shall ascertain the cause and correct the error.
The clerk shall make an errorless count before the automatic tabulating equipment is approved by the clerk for use in the election.
(2) Before beginning the ballot count at each polling place or at the central counting location, the election officials shall witness a test of the automatic tabulating equipment by engaging the printing mechanism and securing a printed result showing a zero count for every candidate and referendum. After the completion of the count, the ballots and programs used shall be sealed and retained under the custody of the municipal clerk in a secure location.
History: 1979 c. 311; 2001 a. 16; 2005 a. 92.
* Indicates required or recommended features of the test deck (optical scan) or voting plan (touchscreen).
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Excerpt from Election Administration Manual (page 139-141):Pre-Election Electronic Voting Equipment Testing
3. Errorless Count Requirement
a. If an error is detected during the testing, the municipal clerk shall determine the cause and correct the error.
b. The clerk must make an errorless count before the electronic tabulating equipment is approved by the clerk for use in the election.
* Indicates required or recommended features of the test deck (optical scan) or voting plan (touchscreen).
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A printable pdf version is this document is availabe through a link on this page.
These instructions can be improved by your feedback. Please comment below or email your suggestions to us at [email protected] We particularly invite suggestions from observers who have used these instruction at a voting machine test, and from election officials.
Let us know how your experience went, and what you saw, either good or bad, by emailing us at [email protected]
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People have lots of ideas about how to ensure accurate election results, including throwing away the voting machines, programming them only with open-source programming, or piling on more and more pre-election security measures. Some of these ideas will help and some won't.
But without waiting for years of debate and sluggish legislative action, citizens can do five things right now under current law to make election miscounts less likely or to make sure mistakes and miscounts get caught in time to be corrected.
- Let your local election officials know that you want voter-marked paper ballots.
- Observe voting-machine tests before each election.
- Observe poll-closing activities at your precinct.
- Observe municipal and county canvass meetings
- Encourage your local officials to perform post-election voting machine audits and observe them.
(Detailed instructions for the last four activities are here.)
1. Let your local election officials know that you want voter-marked paper ballots.
Two basic kinds of voting machines are used in Wisconsin: touch-screen voting machines on which voters record their preferences electronically on a computer; and optical scanners, into which voters insert paper ballots that they have marked by hand. Of those two systems, voter-marked paper ballots provide a much more secure and reliable record of your vote, and technology is available that enables people with disabilities to use the same kind of paper ballot as everyone else. (It's called "AutoMark.")
Touch-screen machines are less secure because the only paper record of anyone's vote is created by the machine, not by the voter. It's good that Wisconsin's touch-screen machines print a “voter-verifiable paper trail” that any voter can look at to make sure his or her vote was printed correctly--some states' machines don't. However, studies have shown that only a fraction of voters ever look at their printed paper ballot before they leave the polling place, and only a fraction who notice errors report them.
As a result, hackers know that even if they program the computer to switch a portion of their opponents' votes, so few voters will say anything to the poll workers that the switches will likely be assumed to be voter error. Mechanical problems can also prevent the trail from printing properly, rendering the election results unauditable.
County clerks and municipal clerks choose what type of voting system your polling place will use. Regardless of which system your municipality now uses, contact your county and municipal clerks at any time to let them know you prefer voting systems that allow voters to mark their own ballots--that is, systems that use paper ballots. Voting machines wear out, so whichever type of system you are using now could be replaced by the other kind. If voters do not make their preferences known, county and municipal clerks will be influenced only by the voting-machine vendors who want to sell them the more profitable touch-screen machines. Talk to your friends and family about the importance of retaining a voter-marked paper record of every ballot, and have them contact local election officials, too.
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2. Observe voting-machine tests before each election.
Every voting machine needs to be set up specifically for the unique set of races and candidates running in each election. Within 10 days before each election, your municipal clerk tests each voting machine to verify it is set up correctly. While these tests cannot predict or prevent Election-Day malfunction, they are indispensable for detecting mistakes or mis-calibrations in the way the machine was set up.
Citizen observation of the voting-machine tests provides clerks with witnesses to the quality and completeness of their testing; helps to make sure the tests are in fact done; and helps to make sure any problems are noted and corrected before Election Day. Procedures for these tests are available online in the Election Administration Manual.
Instructions for observing these tests are here.
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3. Observe poll-closing activities at your precinct.
Most poll-watchers depart when the polls close, or stay only to see the results printed out, leaving poll workers without citizen observation for such critical tasks as reconciling the number of ballots with the number of voters; processing write-in votes; securing the unmarked ballots; sealing ballot bags; and more. This is the most complicated of the processes open to citizen observers, but it’s not rocket science. Read through the poll-closing instructions in the Election Day Manual; sign in before polls close with your precinct’s chief inspector, follow his or her directions, and you’ll do fine.
Even if you do not know proper poll-closing techniques as well as the poll workers performing those activities, the presence of citizen observers helps to reduce the likelihood of both fraud and error. We are not accusing election officials of anything worse than being normal humans when we point out that observers make carelessness less likely, makes problems more likely to be noticed, and makes noticed problems less likely to be swept under the rug.
Most clerks welcome citizen observers because the observers' presence protects honest, competent clerks from suspicion and can provide independent verification of the election’s integrity.
Instructions for observing poll-closing activities are here.
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4. Observe municipal and county canvass meetings
Within a few days after each election, small “Boards of Canvass” meet in each jurisdiction to review the results from all the precincts; review the records from Election Day; resolve any loose ends such as late-arriving but valid absentee votes and any challenged or provisional votes; check the totals when all the precincts’ results are added together, and make the election results final and official.
This is the municipality’s or county’s best chance to notice and correct problems in the vote-totals. Citizen observers can help to ensure that anomalies—such as a suspiciously high number of blank ballots, which might have resulted from a malfunctioning voting machine—are noticed and resolved. The presence of citizen observers can help to make sure required procedures are followed--such as examining each precinct's totals for suspiciously high proportions of undervotes.
Instructions for observing canvass meetings are here.
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5. Encourage your local officials to perform post-election voting machine audits and observe them.
After every election in the November of even-numbered years, after election results have been declared final, GAB randomly selects a very small number of precincts statewide and instructs those municipalities to conduct post-election voting machine audits. In addition, clerks may, if citizens request, do audits at any time after the election. Citizen observers can provide clerks with independent witnesses who can verify they performed the audits correctly; ensure the chain of custody of the ballots was adequately protected; and make sure any oddities that are noticed are not dismissed without being recorded and resolved.
A voting-machine audit done at GAB's direction must consist of a hand count of all the votes in several races selected by the GAB, and comparison of the hand-count total to the machine-tabulated total. Although these audits have several serious limitations, which we documented in our 2013 report, they provide local election officials and citizens a valuable opportunity to assess how well the machines operated.
Audits performed at the initiative of local election officials or citizens can use more efficient methods of verifying the machines' results, some of which are referenced in the same report. Encourage your local election officials to adopt a practice of routinely auditing at least some randomly selected voting machines after every election. With routine practice, the audit process will become more efficient, and with publicity, even a small amount of random auditing will have a big deterrent effect on fraud and carelessness.
Instructions for observing voting-machine audits are here.
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The Election Integrity Action Team is committed to protecting all aspects of Wisconsin's elections. We are currently focusing our efforts on the appropriate use and management of election technology, which we believe is the weakest link in Wisconsin's election practices and the one that gets least serious attention.
Unlike managers who use computers in every other function in business or government, Wisconsin elections officials do not routinely check their computers' Election-Day output for errors or evidence of hacks. Incredible, but true: They could be certifying miscounted output as our final election results and would not even know it. Our grocery store scanners get more prudent IT management than that!
Like any other computer, voting machines have their benefits but are liable to produce incorrect output at unpredictable times, due to a variety of causes. Miscounts have been caused by human error in setting them up for a new election. Mechanical or electronic malfunction have affected vote totals. Finally, every prudent adult now accepts that fact that no computer is immune to hacking--deliberate manipulation.
Yet when you cast a ballot in Wisconsin, there is less than one chance in 130 that anyone will check the accuracy of your voting machine's output, and an even smaller chance anyone will check it in time to correct any errors. On top of that, recounts are pretty much a thing of the past. Our legislature recently (May 2015) amended the law to greatly reduce the already-tiny number of races subject to recount. Now, 'losing' candidates have to pay the full cost of a recount even when electronic tabulations indicate a victory margin of less than one-quarter of one percent (0.25%). Can you imagine a bank demanding the customer pay the full cost of their audit? No, because in banks and every other business or government function except elections, routine verification of computer output is willingly accepted as a basic, routine management responsibility.
The good news is that Wisconsin's local elections officials--particularly county clerks--currently have all the statutory authority they need to routinely verify machine-tabulated results, and efficient methods are available if they choose to use them. What's missing? Citizens who are willing to fight for democracy by asking, demanding, and supporting our elections clerks to get them to adopt the prudent IT management practices of:
- conducting effective pre-election voting machine tests that verify the machines are counting votes correctly in every race (not just verifying that they count the correct number of ballots); and
- verifying the accuracy of the voting-machine output promptly after every election, to ensure that any Election-Day miscounts are detected and corrected during the county canvass period, before the election results are declared final.
For more information on how Wisconsin's elections can be better protected, follow our Election Integrity Blog and check out these links:
Arrange an Election Integrity Road Show for your community group.
Five things you can do to help to protect Wisconsin elections in only a few hours a year.
A printable illustrated booklet describing how electronic miscounts happen, using three actual cases.
A "Field Guide" to Wisconsin's election officials--who does what at the state, county, and municipal levels.
The Case for Preserving Voter-marked Paper Ballots (Advantages of op scan over touch-screen tabulators)
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