Time to speak up about the 2012 Citizen's Recount of the Walker Recall

Conversations at last week’s Democracy Convention made me very grateful that Wisconsin's marked ballots are open records. Citizen monitoring of elections can be impossible when that is not the case. In one state—I cannot even remember which one, I was so shocked at the information—ballots cast through voting machines become the property of the machine vendor! (What muddled brain ever thought that served any public interest?)

I have heard that Wisconsin legislators are considering making it much more expensive for citizens to view marked ballots after an election. We need to find out more about this proposal and get it stopped. While publicly observed official audits after each election should be a routine element of elections management, it's still important that citizens are able to verify the results independently at no great cost.

My sense is this bad legislation was prompted in large part by the badly managed 2012 Recall Election Citizen’s Recount, financed by Wisconsin Wave.

To my knowledge, its key organizers were not active in election integrity before that project and haven’t been since. Every committed election-integrity activist I know of who helped out for a while, like me, quietly distanced themselves as the quality of that effort became apparent.

But it’s time to speak up. Those citizen hand counts were conducted in a way that caused county clerks unnecessary trouble and expense. In addition, the audit (and it was more an audit than a recount) was conducted with a level of secrecy that is 180 degrees from the transparency needed in elections. Finally, the organizers have not yet—more than a year after their effort began—released a report of their findings. Every additional month will add to their difficulty in writing a coherent report, decrease its credibility, and reduce the likelihood that any findings will be constructively actionable.

Before I go further, I will make it clear that I see no benefit in shaming any individuals by name. This is about bad methods, not bad individuals. I had been friends with one of the key organizers for more than a year before she got involved with the recall election, and I am confident she was motivated by a sincere desire to find the truth. I also believe citizen activists need to be very slow in criticizing each other. By definition, none of us are professionals at what we do, and volunteer civic work can be wearying. We get enough grief from people who resist our efforts to improve our communities; we don’t need to shoot at each other.

However, when things go so badly off track that our cause is set back, we need to speak out. So, I will describe my experience with the citizens' recount of the recall election.

Seeing that the effort to audit the recall was attracting needed energy to the election-integrity cause, I was hoping it would be something I could support. To find out, I volunteered to help in Rock County, the first county they visited.

Critical problems were evident from the moment we crossed the threshold of the Janesville courthouse.

Among the problems I observed:

  • No attempt was made to bring observers into the hand counts, and my suggestion that local political parties or civic groups be invited was emphatically rejected. The organizers were anti-Walker activists, so if they had found any miscounts that favored Barrett, there was zero chance their findings would have been taken seriously without the presence of Walker supporters at the hand count.

  • Auditing results in all 72 counties was never considered a possibility, so the organizers knew they would be working with only sample of counties. It should have been apparent to them that their credibility was going to depend upon their explanation of how and why each county was chosen. They never answered my questions about the selection criteria, and I was left with the impression that even as the audit was getting underway, they did not have any clear strategy or plan for selecting which counties would be hand counted.

  • As they started the effort, the organizers had chosen no method for hand counting. They hadn't even acquainted themselves with the various accepted techniques. On the first day, the organizers instructed us in a method that was so haphazard I genuinely cannot remember what it was. To her credit, Rock County Clerk Lori Stottler patiently allowed the group to work as long as it took for the organizers to realize their method was not going to work before she taught them the classic sort-sort-stack-count method. 

  • The organizers had not developed any standard documentation forms or procedures, even at the end of the second day of counting in Rock County, even after several volunteers (including me) expressed concern that our results were not being recorded in a retrievable way. Here is what they did: As we finished counting each batch of ballots, we shouted our results to the organizer, who would scribble unlabeled figures on a sheet of paper that only she could read. Nervous about this system, I and at least one other volunteer twice asked her to read back the figures for a precinct we’d completed, and she had difficulty both times. This inadequate documentation method could not possibly have provided them with useful information for any sort of analysis or summary.

  • The organizers repeatedly described alarming allegations based on observations made during the Lehman state senate recount as grounds for their suspicions that the Walker recall had been miscounted. However, they would not write or sign affidavits attesting to what they saw, and so never created any sort of basis for investigation or action any more consequential than gossip.

  • The entire process was cloaked in a lack of transparency that we would vigorously oppose in the conduct of any other public business. In Rock County, the clerk had understandably notified the local media, so a newspaper reporter and photographer were present as the hand count got underway. This presented the citizen hand-counters with a golden opportunity to shape the public dialogue and to explain the admirable civic reasons for doing what they were doing. However, the organizers were openly rude to the media and encouraged the volunteers to tell the reporter we were there as individual citizens rather than as an organized group; to decline to provide our names; and to refuse consent to be photographed. Based on the first instruction—that I was there as an individual—I decided I did not have to follow the second and third, so my name and photo were published in the Janesville newspaper.

    Although I did not participate in any other counties, I heard from later volunteers that they were asked to sign statements that they would not disclose anything about the audits, and that they were not provided (as we were not) with the results from even the jurisdictions they had helped to recount.
  • When I got home after the first day, I emailed my friend a list of suggestions and asked if I could talk with her and the other organizers privately. I offered them the benefit of my 15 years as a government auditor, during which I learned the level and quality of documentation necessary for credible conclusions. I was allowed to volunteer a second day, but never heard from the organizers again. I tried again later to communicate constructive suggestions through a mutually respected friend but again received no response.

In the report released last month, the Election Integrity Action Team included a list of attributes that should be present in every prudent post-election audit. These attributes apply to both official and citizen audits, and I think the responsible election integrity community in Wisconsin should vow that we will not support any citizen audit that does not follow—or exceed—those basic standards.


-- Karen McKim

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