I’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.
Before the test got underway, I was socializing with five poll workers while the clerk went to fetch the materials for the test. I introduced myself and explained I was there because these tests are the only time we check to make sure the machines are counting accurately.
The liveliest among the experienced crew, Ginny, spoke up proudly, “We always do a hand count after poll closing. We’re small and never get more than 900 or so, so we can always check.”
This was great news. Municipalities have the authority to check their machines’ Election-Day accuracy, but I haven’t yet run across one in Wisconsin that routinely does it.
“Congratulations!” I said and dramatically shook her hand. “That’s great! You count the votes!”
“Oh, no. Not the votes. Just the ballots,” Ginny clarified.
“Oh, shoot,” I said, feigning great disappointment. “Everyone does that. I retract my handshake,” I teased.
One of the trainees, Liz, piped up. “We shouldn’t have to count the votes. That’s why we got the machines. Why should we check the vote totals?”
“You could think of it that way. “ I shrugged. “I guess for the same reason the corner gas station reconciles the cash register tape against its receipts?”
“That’s different.” Liz said. “They’re dealing with cash. “We’re just counting votes.”
As soon as she spoke the words, she heard what she had said. The mood around the table suddenly went from jovial to somber.
“Just votes.” I echoed quietly.
Five faces around the table—all with the wait-what face. Simultaneously realizing how irresponsible it would be if the gas station didn't routinely reconcile its tape with its receipts.
How very irresponsible that would be.