Why Dane County? Why not?

Dane.jpgRecently, WORT radio invited me and Dane County Clerk Scott McDonell to be interviewed during the same noon-hour program. I came prepared to talk about the need to verify voting-machine output; McDonell was prepared to talk about voter suppression; and call-in questions took the conversation in even other directions.

Despite the nature of the conversation, McDonell got across the point that he maintains pre-election security for our voting machines—when they and the software are in his control—as well as any county clerk in the state. I agreed he could be right about that.

I got across the point that routinely checking the accuracy of computer output is a universal, basic IT management practice—one that is not now done for Dane County’s voting machines, and needs to be.

Nevertheless, sitting across the desk from host Yuri Rashkin, I got the feeling I wasn’t making much sense to him. Our short conversation after the show confirmed that.

“I don’t understand why you’re going after McDonell,” he told me. “You should be working on some other county, like Waukesha or somewhere.”

His question startled me—why would he ask for the problem to be fixed elsewhere first? I probably muttered something about wanting to make sure votes were counted correctly in my own community. But when I listened to the show later, I realized the source of the confusion.

Rashkin was assuming the problem has something to do with elections officials’ competence or honesty. It doesn’t.

This isn’t a crime story. It’s a mundane IT management issue--or would be if our right to self-government wasn't at stake.

No Wisconsin county has any more or less need to verify voting-machine output than any other. No clerk in the state has the ability fully to prevent even one of the three types of computer miscounts that could ruin an election if not detected in time:

1)      Human error:  The voting machines in every Wisconsin county are manufactured, programmed, maintained, and operated by fallible humans. Mistakes would happen even if the elections workforce consisted entirely of full-time, highly trained, and tightly regulated information-technology professionals.

We cannot let ourselves think romantically or wishfully about this. We grant our voting-machine companies a remarkable degree of secrecy and freedom from ongoing oversight, and we all know that normal human employees do not maintain the highest standards of quality under those conditions even when they want to. We also know that temporary, part-time, non-professional workforces (bless their hearts) are prone to error—and that’s the workforce with which we administer our elections.

No matter how charming and confident the county clerk, no county’s voting machines are immune from human error. We need routinely to check the accuracy of their output.

2)      Machine malfunction: No Wisconsin county requires its elections officials to be professionally trained computer technicians. Even if they were, they couldn’t guarantee the computers in their care would never overheat, lose calibration, develop dust bunnies that cast phantom votes, or malfunction in some other unexpected, irritating, and unavoidable way. That’s why, in Dane County and everywhere else, we need routinely to check the accuracy of the machines’ output.

3)      Computer fraud: Any local official who has custody of the voting machines or their programmable drives has the ability to insert unauthorized programming that could affect election results, but that’s not the threat national elections-security professions think is most likely.  The voting machines and their software come into our clerks’ possession and control only after having passed through an unknown number of other hands—those of the voting-machine vendor, of the programmer or programmers who created and updated the code, and of whomever hacked in after them.

Thousands of individuals in the US have insiders’ knowledge of voting-machine code and the pathways through which electronic information passes among the voting-machine companies and the elections officials. And no, we don't know the exact method hackers or corrupt insiders will use when they decide to take control of Wisconsin's elections. If people could always know ahead of time what hackers will do, there would be no such thing as hacking.

Not one of our local elections officials can prevent the voting machines from producing hacked outcome if the right person decides he or she would like to decide an election's outcome. However, our local elections officials can prevent any hacked outcome from being certified as our final election results—if they routinely check the accuracy of the output against the paper audit trail that Wisconsin statutes wisely provide for them.

Occasional electronic miscounts are inevitable, but certifying them as our final, official election results is not.

Checking the output promptly would allow miscounts caused by error and malfunction to be corrected before election results are declared final, and would deter hacking more effectively than any pre-election security measure can.

Failure to verify the output is a gaping but easily fixed vulnerability that affects every Wisconsin county, including Dane.

So why not fix it?

Dane County is as good a starting place as any other.

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