Our Path Forward: Ensuring Accurate Vote Counts

Wisconsin should routinely conduct binding audits of election results before declaring them final.  

What’s the Problem Addressed?
The responsibility of elections in the United States is entrusted to local officials in thousands of different jurisdictions. The point of contact for voters is usually a volunteer in the polling place, who has received only a few hours of training. These features, combined with the high frequency Americans are requested to vote, present unique challenges for the effective administration of elections.[note] U.S. Presidential Commission on Election Administration (January 2014). The American voting experience: report and recommendations of the presidential commission on election administration.[/note]

Unfortunately, voting machines across the nation are outdated and local election officials have neither the expertise nor resources to maintain strong cybersecurity. Virtually all elections are open to manipulation and subversion by interested entities – both foreign and domestic.[note] Root, D., & Kennedy, L.  (August 16, 2017). 9 Solutions to Secure America’s Elections. Center for American Progress.; Norden, L. D., & Famighetti, C. (2015). America’s Voting Machines at Risk. Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.[/note]

In some ways, Wisconsin’s election security is actually better than some other states. We do have paper ballots, and decentralized counting of them by thousands of separate machines in voting places around the states. And we do have Election-Day registration, which makes tampering with the electronic poll books relatively pointless (We also have photo ID requirements, but those are aimed at limiting voting, not reducing fraud in tallying votes.)

But our electronic voting machines are aging, generally without the latest guards against easy hacking. We have been stingy in modernizing them. And we are only desultory in monitoring their performance. Wisconsin law requires a performance audit of our voting machines (many now more than 10 years old) only after general elections. And this review is neither comprehensive (nor close to comprehensive) and minimally demanding. It is done by testing a random sample of 100 machines (out of many thousands used) against federal performance standards, which nearly everyone knows to be wildly lower than needed.[note] Wisconsin Election Commission. Voting Equipment Audits.[/note]

In addition – and this is by far the biggest threat to ensuring accuracy in counting our votes – we do not verify election results before certifying them as final, or require that audits are binding on that certification. This failure to check accuracy is contrary to the recommendations of every national expert on proper election administration, and arguably illegal in the 26 states (including Washington DC) that explicitly require reviews. Instead, our county clerks declare election results final without making any effort to check if the machine vote totals are accurate. There is really no excuse for this nonfeasance. Audits are not particularly expensive or time-consuming. Our clerks generally just don’t bother, because they are not required to. 

The incompleteness (sometimes virtual nonfeasance) of Wisconsin’s current system for checking voting accuracy and the performance of its stock of voting machines was recently pronounced “unsatisfactory” by a review of state election practice from the Center for American Progress.[note] Root, Kennedy, Sozan, & Parshall (February 2018). Election Security in All 50 States: Defending America’s Elections. Center for American Progress.[/note] We agree. 

How OWR’s Proposal Addresses It
Wisconsin has the basic requirements in place that would enable audits. Most importantly, all voting machines used in Wisconsin use or create auditable paper records of each ballot cast on Election Day, either in the form of voter-marked paper ballots or Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trails (VVPAT), a printed record that stays inside touchscreen voting machines.  

In addition, Wisconsin county boards of canvass already have statutory authority to review election results during the canvass and correct any errors they find. The time our law allots for post-election review before results must be certified is as long as that in other states where election audits are routinely performed.

With the paper records of each ballot, our local officials have several options for verifying the accuracy of the computer-tabulated election results. A special type of statistical ballot sampling, known as Risk-Limiting Audit (RLA)[note] The Risk-Limiting Audits Working Group (October 2012). Risk-Limiting Post-Election Audits: Why and How. ([/note] includes a procedure for manually checking a sample of ballots and is designed to limit the risk that election results identified the wrong winner.[note] Farivar, C. (November 8, 2017). Saving throw: Securing democracy with stats, spreadsheets, and 10-sided dice. Ars Technica.[/note] RLA has been endorsed by the American Statistical Association as a way of given voters justified confidence that reported election results are indeed accurate.[note] American Statistical Association (April 17, 2010). Statement on Risk-Limiting Post- Election Audits.[/note] However, any auditing method that provides strong statistical evidence that the reported outcome is correct, and that provides a high probability of discovering and correcting a wrong outcome will protect Wisconsin elections from fraud and accidental miscounts.[note] The Risk-Limiting Audits Working Group (October 2012). Risk-Limiting Post-Election Audits: Why and How.[/note]

Who Else Is Doing This?
As indicated above, 26 states (including Washington DC) now require a pre-certification audit of election results, in most cases a binding one. Last November, Colorado became the first state to implement an RLA requirement for all its elections. Rhode Island will follow suit no later than 2020.[note] Rhode Island Board of Elections (November 15, 2017). RI Board of Elections to Observe Risk-Limiting Post-Election Audits in Colorado.[/note] Other states have themselves allocated more of their own funds, or competed more vigorously for federal ones, to modernize their voting machinery.

Why Not Wisconsin?
There is no excuse – not money, not time, not ignorance of good practice – for Wisconsin falling every further behind other states in the security and integrity and efficiency of its election system. This is only, and entirely, a question of state leadership, which we voters can easily change.