Most local government officials don’t resist taking responsibility for the accuracy of their own department’s work product.
No city treasurer would refuse to check accuracy of property-tax bills.
No county executive would release a report on annual expenditures without double-checking accuracy.
These managers don't need state laws specifically requiring accuracy. They know it’s just part of being a responsible manager.
But the Wisconsin County Clerks Association is officially on record: They don’t want to check accuracy of their work product. And their work product is our election results.
The WCCA statement came in response to the Wisconsin Elections Commission’s September announcement that they were considering two measures to improve election security.
The first measure involved once-every-two-years voting-machine audits. Municipal clerks perform these audits of individual voting machines. They are the only accuracy checks that the Commission has authority to order, but they have limited value. Not only are they limited to November elections in even-numbered years, they check only a few random voting machines, without confirming that the right winners were identified in any race.
But municipal voting-machine audits are better than nothing. So the Commission said it was considering ordering the municipal clerks to audit more machines than in previous years and would require the audits to be completed before election results are declared final.
The second measure would move Wisconsin slightly toward compliance with national standards for election security. The Commission said it was considering encouraging county clerks to perform more thorough election audits of the type recommended by election-security authorities.
Response from the WCCA was swift, naïve, and irresponsible. The county clerks let the Commission know they were okay with ordering the municipal clerks to do more voting-machine audits, but they didn’t want the Commission requiring, or even encouraging, the county clerks to perform genuine election audits.
Perhaps sensing they are on the losing end of a national trend (they are), the WCCA also described how it wants audits restricted:
- These election managers don't wanna check accuracy until after they have certified the election results.
- These election managers don't wanna check accuracy for any but the top race on the ballot.
- And they want the State to pay extra if it even suggests they check accuracy.
I’m not making that up. The organization’s memo to the Wisconsin Elections Commission is reproduced, verbatim, below.
In their rush to deny normal managerial responsibility, the WCCA got confused about the purpose of “evidence.” They wrote that our paper ballots “should be treated like evidence and remain undisturbed” until after the clerks have reached their verdict and waited to see if anyone would ask for a recount. Let’s hope the Trial Judges Association doesn’t follow suit and claim that they, too, don’t need to look at the evidence until after they’ve reached their verdict and know whether anyone is going to appeal.
The WCCA’s message that only the top race on the ballot should be verified could be restated: “If you want us to protect the US Senate election, forget about protecting the Governor’s election.” And hackers, of course, are delighted to know ahead of time which race is off limits to manipulation, and which races are still on an honor system.
Because they do not consider checking accuracy a routine managerial responsibility, the county clerks demand the state pay them to verify election results. Again, putting this demand in the mouth of any other local government manager is revealing. Imagine a county parks manager telling the county budget manager: “I signed off on this accounting of the user fees the Parks Department collected this quarter. If you want me to ensure accuracy, you'll need to pay extra.”
For their final flourish, the clerks denied their ability to conduct accurate hand counts and misrepresented the findings of a study conducted by researchers from MIT, Harvard, and the UW Madison (Learning from Recounts, 2017). The WCCA memo claimed the researchers had declared that “hand counts of election results are inherently inaccurate.”
Compare that to the researchers’ actual words: “...careful hand counting in a recount is the gold standard for assessing the true vote totals — in large part because of the greater focus on a single contest, more deliberate processing of ballots, and careful observation by campaign officials and other interested parties....” The researchers ultimately expressed no preference for either method of counting, concluding: "ballots originally counted by computer ... appear to be at least as accurate as ballots originally counted by hand."
* * *
Vote-tabulating computers are no different than any other computer, so it’s delusional to imagine that election results do not need to be checked for accuracy. Many people have the motive, means, and opportunity to tamper with election results—starting with the hundreds who have authorized access though voting-machine vendors and service companies. And then we have to consider the mundane risks of human programmer/operator error and random malfunction.
But municipal clerks cannot verify results in federal, state, and county races; they have access to the ballots from only their own city, village, or town. And the WEC is the legal custodian of no ballots at all; has only a few days after county certification before they must certify; and has no statutory authority to question results the county has certified.
Wisconsin statutes give county clerks the buck-stops-here responsibility for election results’ accuracy.
We must insist the county clerks accept that responsibility. They have the paper ballots. They have the time. Modern election-audit practices would allow them to verify a few races on the ballot in just two or three days, at most, out of the two weeks that statutes allow them before they must certify the election. The only cost would be the hand-counters’ time at $10 or $12 an hour—a tiny fraction of the county’s elections-administration budget. They could randomly select just a few races for verification—just enough to deter election thieves in the races most liable to attract their interest.
And yet, collectively, they refuse.
Now, the bright notes: As the WCCA memo states, a few county clerks have begun voluntarily to incorporate hand-counted audits into their routine canvass procedures. Better yet, the Commission ignored the WCCA's whining and voted unanimously to encourage county clerks to start auditing during their canvass.
As a result, every county clerk in Wisconsin received a memo on October 4 explaining the current nationwide move to election auditing and providing the clerks with instructions on how to get started.
Only voters, though, can make it happen. Voters who care about election security should contact their county clerk to find out whether their votes in future elections will be protected with hand-counted audits during the county canvass.
If not, the next election on February 19 will provide an excellent opportunity for your clerk to begin developing routine election-audit practices, since it will likely be a low-turnout election. Your county clerk has plenty of time before February to learn about the various methods of checking accuracy and work out his or her local procedures.
Insist on it.
We need to talk about how we can defend election officials from partisan allegations of corruption, when they are guilty only of poor, careless, and ineffective elections management.
I hope you perceived that sentence to be as goofy as I intended it. What I really want to know is when we voters are going to demand high-quality election administration. When poorly operated polling places make voting difficult, when ballots are mishandled or when votes are miscounted, I don’t care which party it hurts or whether it was fraud or incompetence.
I want it fixed.
Following every election, my Facebook news feed fills with reports of sloppy election-management practices. If partisans can find a way to use an incident to their advantage (and they always can), that’s all they want to talk about.
I spent last Saturday morning in New Berlin at a meeting of grassroots conservative voters who are loudly disgusted with Milwaukee’s election administration. They freely alleged corruption and fraud, which I think unlikely, but I appreciate their anger and distrust.
Their candidate for governor lost by 30,849 votes on a night when the City of Milwaukee took hours longer than expected to process 47,000 absentee ballots. City officials explained that they needed to copy more than 2,000 of those ballots by hand because the original ballots were too damaged for the machines to read.
How can anyone expect emotionally invested partisans to refrain from yelling "Corruption!" when something like that happens?
So election officials promptly apologized. They admitted they knew ahead of time exactly how many absentee ballots they would need to process. They accepted full responsibility and started an immediate investigation. They made a public commitment that in future elections, absentee ballots will be processed as smoothly in Milwaukee as elsewhere.
I’m being goofy again. They did no such thing. That’s the kind of response we’d expect from a city treasurer who had sluggishly processed 47,000 property tax payments because 2,000 had been mangled.
In reality, the first response from election officials was that the incident was “routine,” hardly a confidence-building defense. Then, Milwaukee Elections Director Neil Albrecht reframed concerns about management as insults to the workers, and blamed Republicans for not passing legislation that would allow municipal clerks to run the voting machines continuously for weeks before each election. (He did not, however, offer a solution to the as-yet-unresolved details of how security and accuracy safeguards can be maintained when voting machines are in active operation for a six-week period instead of just one day.)
No sensible observer of politics will be surprised when I report that the Republicans in the meeting I attended spoke of using this incident to restrict all early and absentee voting around the entire state. They further mused about reviewing all Milwaukee absentee ballots to make sure the envelope signatures match those on file. They spoke of demanding a randomly selected ballot be thrown out for every ballot disqualified by a non-matching signature. (That’s called a ‘drawdown’ and is legal under current Wisconsin law.) Going after mismatched signatures has been used in other states to get votes thrown out or to make voters jump through hoops to preserve their votes.
Of course, such a process, if done only in Milwaukee County, would throw out many more Democratic votes than Republican votes. That’s why throwing out the ballots of randomly selected innocent voters while creating no consequences for the responsible managers looks like a ‘solution’ through their eyes.
So we’ve got a situation in which the Democrats are using this incident to push for running the voting machines continuously for six weeks, damn the security issues. The Republicans are using it to push for measures that would suppress legitimate Milwaukee votes.
Who is talking about better election administration? Who is asking why Milwaukee officials were prepared to count fewer ballots than they knew they had on hand? Did they not hire enough workers? Did they not assign enough equipment? Were their procedures less efficient than they could have been? Who is demanding to know why Milwaukee had, proportionately, more spoiled ballots than other counties, or what can be done to fix that?
No one. We don't hold our election managers to the same standards we hold other local government managers. Can you imagine what would happen to a city treasurer who defended comparable news about processing property-tax payments by calling it ‘routine’? When transactions are conducted in votes rather than dollars, our expectations of the managers plummet.
When we tolerate--even excuse—elections mismanagement, partisans will always take advantage. To use this case as an example, it is easy to see that people who want to expand early voting should aggressively work to make it as well-managed as possible, not to defend its mismanagement as unavoidable or routine.
Partisanship will never go away; tribalism is what humans do. But our election officials could stop insisting that voters accept poor planning and accidents as routine. If we want to hush the partisan complaints, we must hold our election managers to higher standards of care and competence.
Have any Wisconsin elections been hacked? A few elections were recounted, but no one knows about the others. Until this year, Wisconsin's election officials merely added up the machines' vote totals and declared the results final. Audits were something that they did later, if ever.
But Wisconsin's clerks are waking up to the fact that if they choose to, they can detect miscounts in time to correct them.
So this month, for the first time in Wisconsin's history, voters can be present as clerks hand-count paper ballots. These audits will verify at least some computer-tabulated results before they declare election results final.
At least one audit will be conducted in every county. The day after the election, Wisconsin Elections Commission staff randomly selected 5% of the voting machines and ordered those municipal clerks to conduct hand counts. Those audits are now underway, and will be completed before November 28. Click here to see if a municipality near you is conducting one.
Do not expect the audits to detect problems.
Finding problems in this election is not the audits' main value.
Routine audits are valuable for the fraud they deter.
Our election officials need public support and recognition for starting down the road to secure, audited elections. Here's what you can do:
- At a minimum, call your local municipal clerk and your county clerk to thank them for this year's audits and encourage them to do more in future elections. The WEC can order only municipalities (not counties) to check accuracy, and can do that for only one election every two years. Voters need to pressure our local officials to do more, voluntarily.
- Better yet, ask the municipal clerk when the audit will be conducted in your municipality. Attend and observe, if only for an hour or two. As administrative procedures, audits are more relaxed than recounts. The municipal clerk should allow you to observe closely enough to see the ballots yourself, and your presence will show the clerks their work is appreciated.
- More detailed instructions for observing the audits are here.
Call your municipal clerk today, and support the efforts to secure Wisconsin's elections with routine audits.
Paper ballots can be manually counted in different ways--sort by candidate and then count the ballots; stack the ballots into groups of 20 and 100 and then have counters mark tally sheets as they go through the stack one-by-one; and more.
Affordable technology--a simple digital camera hooked up to a projector--can beat all these methods on each of the four attributes of a good manual-counting method.
1. Ballot security.
Ballots must not be altered by the manual count. Sorting and stacking methods require the ballots to be handled several times, by several people, and moved around tables. When ballots are projected, only one person needs to handle the ballots, only once, and can keep them on one table, in full view.
In a manual count, accuracy is established with redundant counts—two or more people must agree on each vote, reconciling any disagreement. When counters make errors in sort-and-stack or tally-sheet methods, finding and reviewing the problem ballot can take a lot of time and ballot-handling. With projected ballots, everyone sees the same vote at the same time, so ambiguous votes can be reconciled when they are first encountered.
Faster methods of manual counting help to restrain costs, because labor is the biggest cost. Quicker counting also makes the task more pleasant for both counters and observers. Projected-ballot manual counts have accurately counted votes in one race at a rate of 100 ballots every four minutes, including time to stop to compare paired counters' totals and resolve any differences. Depending on ballot design, two races could go just as fast.
The value of a manual count depends upon how much trust it produces in candidates and voters. In traditional manual-count methods, observers cannot see ballots well enough to verify for themselves that the votes are being counted accurately and honestly.
When the ballots are projected, observers see exactly what the official counters see. In addition, because projected-ballot counts require no ballot-handling by the counters, observers can be drafted on the spot as official counters--powerfully counteracting any distrust.
A tally sheet completed in full view of all counters and observers serves as a record of the manual count.
A pdf document containing step-by-step instructions is here.
Reporter: "Does it bother you that what you're showing is humbug?"
PT Barnum: "Do these smiles seem humbug? It doesn't matter where they come from if the joy is real."
I recalled this dialogue from The Greatest Showman as I was observing a pre-election voting machine test in the City of Elroy, Wisconsin on Monday, August 6.
Conducted in every municipality before every election, these tests serve some necessary functions.
But as a safeguard against hacking, they are humbug—as authentic as a bearded lady whose facial hair is hanging from strings looped around her ears.
I've observed more than two dozen of these tests over the years. The ones I observed this week were typical. Even if you're not an IT professional, I'll bet you can pick out why these tests don't protect Election-Day results from hacking—whether the hacker is an Internet cyber-crook or a corrupt voting-machine company insider.
Here, try it. Start by predicting what the hacker might try to do. First, do you think the hacker would make the malicious code miscount every single vote or only some votes?
You guessed 'only some,' and experts agree. When a blue-ribbon election-security task force convened by the Brennan Center for Justice worked out how a hacker would steal a statewide race in the imaginary State of Pennasota, they calculated that no hacker would likely alter more than 7.5% of the votes, or a little more than 1 in every 13. So if you want to detect hacking, your set of fake ballots—your 'test deck'—should contain enough ballots to give each candidate at least 13 valid votes.
But Wisconsin municipal clerks typically create test decks with only one vote for each candidate—enough to catch only hacks that affect every single vote.
Second, do you suppose the hacker might instead allow the machines to count votes accurately all day, and then simply flip the candidates' vote totals at the end of the day to give his guy the biggest total? You probably guessed yes, he might. So you would need to create a test deck that has a winner in each race, a different number of votes for each candidate.
Wisconsin municipal clerks' pre-election test results typically contain a lot of ties--the same number of votes for each candidate in each race. Those test decks would not detect any vote-flipping hacks.
Finally, would the hacker's malicious code kick in whenever the machine was turned on, or only on Election Day? This one is easy. Hacks would never trigger on any day other than Election Day.
This is the fatal flaw of pre-election testing as a safeguard against hacking. Hackers can program their code to trigger only when the calendar says it's Election Day...or only when ballots are inserted at a rate typical of Election Day...or only when the machine has been operating continuously for more than eight hours...or only on some other telltale sign that real votes, not test votes, are being counted. As the Brennan Center Task Force report put it, trying to use tests like these to detect hacking would create a constantly escalating arms race between election officials trying to make the test look like a normal Election Day and hackers finding new ways to detect a test situation.
As a result, the Task Force didn't bother even to mention pre-election testing as a safeguard in its list of six security recommendations.
Many of Wisconsin's pre-election tests do not hide the fact that the machines are running in test mode, not Election-Day mode. The photo at right is a close-up of the voter-verifiable paper trail from an AVC Edge voting machine, programmed by Command Central, being tested in Juneau County before the August 14, 2018 primary. Notice that the voting machine printed "PRE-LAT PAPER RECORD" at the top of the ballot. 'LAT' is the computer professionals' term for "logic and accuracy testing," a basic routine whenever software has been updated. (I don't know why Command Central calls it "PRE-LAT".)
This machine clearly knows it is counting test ballots, not real ones. Operating in test mode doesn't render the test useless for things like catching innocent programming errors. But:
It is humbug for election clerks
to fool themselves, or to fool the public,
into thinking these pre-election tests
provide any protection against hacking.
If we want to stop being fed humbug, we have to stop falling for it. If your local election officials tell you:
- "Election results are protected by pre-election voting machine tests", tell them that you know Wisconsin's pre-election voting machine tests could not detect hacking any less obvious than that which in 2010 elected a cartoon robot to the Washington, DC school board.
- "Election results are protected by keeping the machines unconnected from the Internet," tell them that you know that they have no idea about what happens to the software before it comes into their control.
- "Election results are protected by federal and state certification," tell them you know that the software has been copied and updated many times since it was certified, and that no one has ever or will ever inspect the software that will count your votes on Election Day.
- "Election results are protected by the audits we already do," tell them that audits completed only after the canvass cannot possibly protect results they have already declared final ('certified').
The solution: Contact your county election office. In Milwaukee County, that's the Elections Commission; in other counties, it's the county clerk. Tell them:
"This voter is done with humbug. I know that one and only one safeguard can protect our final election results.
Use our paper ballots to detect and correct any electronic miscounts before you declare election results final. Start this November."
Don't expect your county official to be stubborn; several are already planning to check accuracy before they certify the November results as final. Find out if yours is one.
But if your county officials are not now planning to begin auditing, don't accept excuses. They got a memo on August 1, 2018 from the Wisconsin Elections Commission that made it clear: "A post-election audit is a tool that could be implemented to confirm that results have been tabulated accurately," and "post-election audits of the results may be conducted prior to certification of the canvass." The Commission even gave them basic instructions they can follow.
No more humbug
about election security.
Tell your county officials
today: "Time's up.
You can also help by donating to help Wisconsin Election Integrity get the no-humbug word out to voters, officials, and media through our 2018 publicity campaign.
And you can email the Wisconsin Elections Commission at firstname.lastname@example.org to encourage them to mandate pre-certification audits in every county, at their September 25 meeting.
Just a few tweaks to WECs' audit policy could make Wisconsin’s November 2018 elections the most secure since we started counting our votes with computers.
There's still time before the November 2018 elections for the Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC) to put a patch on the state’s biggest, most dangerous election-security hole. Up to now, local election clerks haven't been checking the voting machines' Election-Day accuracy before the certify election results. They could be doing that easily, quickly, and cheaply.
To audit voting machines' November 6 output, neither WEC nor the local clerks need to spend an extra penny over what they already have budgeted for that election. The WEC has to change only one policy at their September 25 meeting.
But voters have to speak up--now. We must tell the WEC to revise their policy regarding the voting-machine audits for 2018, and order those audits to be completed in every county before election results are declared final. The WEC can be reached at (608) 266-8005 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
We have paper ballots. And local officials have up to two weeks after each election to review (‘canvass’) them to make sure the results are correct before they declare the official winners (‘certify’).
But Wisconsin election clerks seal them in bags on Election Night. During their review, they look at the poll tapes, but leave the ballots sealed. Then they certify. They swear the winners into office. Twenty-two months later, they destroy the ballots.
Perpetually sealed paper ballots do not deter hackers; they protect them.
About half the states require officials to do at least a little auditing of computer-calculated Election-Day results before they certify. But in Wisconsin, state law merely allows, but does not require, accuracy checks.
When I ask county clerks why they don't check Election-Day accuracy, I get answers like, "If we had to count votes manually, that would defeat the purpose of using the machines," and "If these machines were capable of miscounting, the State wouldn't let us use them." And "We did a recount before and didn't find that election had been hacked." Basically, the people who manage our voting machines don't believe they can be hacked. Or that they can malfunction. Or that humans sometimes make programming errors.
We can't have kind of naiveté among our voting-machine managers.
Since 2006, Wisconsin statutes have required the state elections agency to order voting-machine audits following November elections. That law, section 7.08(6) of the statutes, also orders local governments to do any audits the WEC tells them to do.
As is typical for laws like this, the statute leaves the details to the bureaucrats. How many voting machines to audit? When to audit? How to select the sample? Those decisions are left to the state elections agency.
But state elections officials have, before this year, denied the risk of an Election-Day hack. They were so confident, they didn't think anyone needed to look for it. So they have never ordered the type of audits that would protect final election results from hackers.
But times have changed, and awareness of the complex risks--not limited to Russian hackers--has grown. WEC will be tweaking their voting-machine audit instructions soon, as they always do shortly before November general elections, and we voters have got to make sure they do it right this time.
We must demand two things.
First, the 2018 audit instructions need to tell local officials “Finish the audits during the county canvass so that you can correct any hacks or errors you might find.”
From 2006 through 2012, the State told local officials to wait to check accuracy until after they had certified the results. In 2014, state elections board members ordered their staff to stop prohibiting on-time audits. But they have never ordered timely audits—they merely stopped prohibiting them.
Second, we must demand that the WEC order audits of at least one voting machine in each county. More would be better, of course, but they’ve budgeted for only 100 voting-machine audits, and Wisconsin has 72 counties. So they can do this.
The sample selection method used in previous years is too odd to explain here. It has to do with making sure the sample contains five of each make and model of voting machine. The critical fact is that it has always left some counties out.
Wisconsin’s voting machines are, in all but a few counties, programmed at the county level. For the federal, state, and county races, the same vote-counting code is copied onto all the voting machines in a county. So there’s a good chance you could deter hackers by randomly selecting one machine in each county.
The best audit would, of course, include enough ballots to produce a statistically valid answer to “Are these the right winners?” But we're down to the wire in 2018, and valid, respectable audits will probably need to wait until 2020. Until then, we need quick, better-than-nothing audits.
About cost: Funding for around 100 voting machine audits has already been budgeted--or should have been. Unless they increase the sample size, the WEC can order protective audits for the same price they are planning to pay for useless ones.
Just those two tweaks to WECs' audit policy, and Wisconsin’s November 2018 elections will be the most secure in our state’s history since we started counting our votes with computers. They will be the first in which would-be hackers were put on notice: Any voting machine anywhere in the state might be randomly selected for an audit while there is still time to detect your mess and clean it up.
So: We must tell the WEC to order voting-machine audits in every county, and that they be completed before November 2018 election results are declared final.
This topic will be on their September 2018 meeting agenda, and they have asked for voters' input.
The WEC can be reached at (608) 266-8005 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The job description for the Wisconsin Election Commission’s public information officer does not say “Secure Wisconsin’s elections.” So Reid Magney's annual performance review won't suffer if, next November, hackers compromise ES&S headquarters in Nebraska, manipulate Milwaukee County's voting system, and pick Wisconsin's US Senator.
Magney’s job description probably says something like “Build voter confidence.” So don't expect him to draw attention to this or that national report, or whichever new report has once again given Wisconsin poor marks for election security.
Last Wednesday, Carrie Kaufman of WPR’s Morning Show told Magney, “Assure me that our voting system is secure.”
Magney obliged, and recited all the great things about security for the voter-registration system (my emphasis, not his). He talked about firewalls, multifactor authentication, hiring new Internet security staff, and installing software that will monitor for suspicious activity.
Magney avoided saying much about Wisconsin's vote-tabulation system. That’s a different security story.
WEC has very little responsibility for the vote-tabulation system. It was developed by private out-of-state companies, and is owned, operated, updated, and maintained by those companies and Wisconsin's counties, cities, villages, and towns. Not by WEC.
Magney left the impression that the wonderful safeguards protecting WEC's voter-registration system also protect the vote-tabulation system.
But I know enough election technology to notice the omissions. As I listened, I found myself imagining a different interview. I imagined that Kaufman had asked specifically about the tabulation system, and that she was speaking with a WEC representative whose job description said “Make sure voters understand the real risks and necessary safeguards.”
Here’s that interview:
Interviewer: Welcome to our show. Every day seems to bring more alarming news about Russia’s intent to tamper with American elections. Is Wisconsin's computerized vote-tabulation system secure? I will discuss that today with my guest, Earnest Veracity of the Wisconsin Elections Commission. Welcome, Earnest.
Veracity: Thank you for having me.
Interviewer: I’m assuming you’re familiar with the five basic functions of a cybersecurity program, spelled out by the National Institute of Standards and Technology—identify the risks; protect the system; detect any problems; respond to any problems; and recover. Would that be a good framework for discussing Wisconsin's election security?
Veracity: Yes, that framework is useful. But I do have to make one thing clear before we start. I’ll answer your questions as best I can, but I’ll be talking more about the voting-machine companies and the local election officials than anything WEC does. Wisconsin has very decentralized elections administration, and voting-machine security is no exception.
Interviewer: I understand that. Let’s start with simply describing the system. Are the computers that count our votes inside those machines at our polling place, or somewhere else? Whose system is it? Who manages it?
Veracity: The vote-tabulating system consists of three parts: whatever computers the voting-machine companies use to develop and update the software; an 'elections management' computer in each county clerk's office; and the voting machines in each polling place. Each new election has its own set of races and candidates, so the county computers and the voting machines have to be reprogrammed for every new election. Typically, the software is developed out of state at one of the voting-machine companies' offices, and then transferred to the county either over the Internet or with portable digital media. The county clerk then prepares the software for each voting machine, and the municipal clerks install it in the voting machines. That software really travels.
Ownership and management get a little tangled. The companies own the software and some of the equipment. Counties typically own and manage the county computers, while the voting machines are owned or leased by the cities, villages, and towns.
Interviewer: So where are our votes counted?
Veracity: The software that counts your votes is typically inside the machine in your polling place. But it got there through the county's computer and the vendor's computers.
Interviewer: Got it. Let's move to security, and start with the first function, risk identification. Have the voting machine companies and the local election officials identified the risks?
Veracity: We don’t know whether the voting-machine companies have identified the risks. It’s possible they haven’t, because to the best of our knowledge, none employ any IT security professionals. Your network carries a great show, Science Friday, which aired a very good segment on this topic right before the 2016 elections. Aviel Rubin, director of the Johns Hopkins University Information Security Institute, described what he learned when he visited all the major voting-machine companies.
As for the local election officials, few understand the risks. Most, for example, will tell you the voting machine cannot be hacked if it isn’t connected to the Internet, overlooking the other computers involved in the process. They also believe that pre-election tests can detect hacked software. No one should expect local election officials to be IT security professionals. They just are not.
Interviewer: I suppose that’s fair. How about the second function of a good cybersecurity program. Do the managers of the vote-tabulation system protect it from the risks?
Veracity: Again, we know nearly nothing about the voting-machine companies’ security practices. A few incidents indicate they might be lax. For example, in 2016, recount observers noticed manufacturers’ seals missing from voting machines in St. Croix County. When we investigated those citizens’ reports, we discovered a vendor’s service technician had left machines unsealed through several elections. We checked only St. Croix County’s machines. There may have been others that the technician left unsealed.
The local election officials, well, they do the best they can. They keep the voting machines and county election computers in locked rooms, and only occasionally find someone got unauthorized access. They are very reliable about keeping track of the software as it passes back and forth between the county and the municipalities. But keep in mind the nature of the workforce. Elections are run mostly by people who work on those tasks only a few days each year. We cannot expect security protocols to be reliably followed.
Interviewer: Well, that’s sobering. Who oversees the local governments’ election-security efforts? Do you?
Veracity: No, they’re pretty much on their own. County clerks are independently elected. Making sure they do their job right is up to the voters. Municipal clerks generally answer to the city council, village board, or town board, not to any professional election overseers. WEC does not, cannot, monitor their security practices.
Interviewer: Yikes. So as far as we know, no one is making sure we have much risk-identification or strong protection going on. What about detection? Do the local officials at least have ways to detect Election-Day computer miscounts? I understand that hacking isn’t the only threat—that they also need to be on the lookout for human error and random malfunction.
Veracity: Yes, those are the three main categories of electronic threats to our election results. But again, I'm sorry I cannot answer that question with regard to the voting-machine companies’ security practices. We have no idea what they do, if anything, that would, for example, detect malicious code if one of their programmers goes rogue and starts working for Russia.
And local election officials have no way to notice any malicious code if it’s already there when they receive software or updates from the vendor and install them in the voting machines. They are good about doing pre-election voting-machine tests, which can catch human programming errors. But those tests wouldn’t detect hacking. Remember the Volkswagen scandal? That should have taught everyone that hacks are designed to operate only during actual use, not during testing. A hacker would make the malicious code operate only on Election Day.
After each election, local election officials check that the machines counted ballots correctly, but not whether the machines counted votes correctly. That doesn’t protect our election results, because hackers would tamper only with vote totals and leave the ballot totals alone.
When miscounts are really obvious, local election officials sometimes notice, like they did in Stoughton in 2014. But sometimes they don't. In Racine and Marinette Counties in 2016, and in Medford in 2004, the local officials just blew past obvious computer miscounts and certified the wrong vote totals. Hackers could make thousands of votes just disappear, and it probably wouldn't be noticed or corrected in the canvass.
A citizens’ group, Wisconsin Election Integrity, has been pressuring us since 2012 to promote routine post-election audits during the canvass. National authorities recommend, and other states use, those audits because they deter hacking and protect certified election results from all types of miscounts. But we cannot make a decision in only six years. Maybe we’ll give it some thought for 2020. Maybe not.
Interviewer: Do the managers have procedures to respond to an event, so that they can prevent or minimize damage to the final election results?
Veracity: Finally, I can answer "Yes!" If local election officials detect incorrect preliminary vote totals during the canvass, Wisconsin statutes give them everything they need to protect the final, certified election results. They have the paper ballots, the freedom to decide to hand count, enough time for the canvass. The Stoughton voting-machine miscount of 2014 is an excellent illustration. Once they noticed the miscount, the municipal clerk quickly opened the ballot bags, hand-counted, and didn’t even miss the municipal canvass deadline. So if they do routine audits during the canvass, they will always be able to secure the final election results.
If they wait to detect problems until after they certify, though, that would be royal mess—expensive lawsuits and scandal, massive damage to voter confidence. I don’t even want to think about it.
Interviewer: Do the managers have procedures to recover and restore the system to normal functioning after an event?
Veracity: Well, neither we nor the local election officials have the skills or resources for serious forensic investigation. So it’s hard to say what we’d do to determine the causes and fix the flaw if we ever noticed a hack. When in 2017 we could no longer ignore the Optech Eagle’s inability to count votes from many absentee ballots, we decertified that system. But we probably wouldn’t do that if we found problems with a newer system. I cannot imagine, for example, expelling ES&S from the state if we found they’d installed remote-access software here like they admit they’ve done elsewhere. They count more than 70% of Wisconsin’s votes. Banishing them would be terribly disruptive and expensive.
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Ask any Wisconsin official whether our elections are secure and you'll get this answer: "Our voting machines are never connected to the Internet; elections administration is decentralized; and the machines' designs were approved by the federal and state governments."
Go ahead—call your county clerk and ask. That is the answer you'll get. He or she sincerely believes those three safeguards protect Wisconsin elections.
Today, a consortium of national election-integrity groups released a new report: Securing the Nation’s Voting Machines: A Toolkit for Advocates and Election Officials.
Here's how many of the Wisconsin election officials' three favorite safeguards made the list recommended by the national authorities: None.
Here's why not:
- Voting machines are and always will be programmed by fallible, corruptible humans. Anyone who develops or loads the software can manipulate the vote totals without the Internet.
- You could hack into only one or two big counties' voting machines and swing a statewide election. In fact, county control of the voting machines might make hacking easier by increasing the number of vulnerable entry points. Besides, it's not really the local clerks who manage the machines anyway. It's three companies: Command Central, Dominion, and the biggest one, ES&S, which supplies the software that counts about 2 of every 3 Wisconsin votes.
- Federal and state approval of the voting machines' original design cannot secure the machine that counts your votes. The software was copied and updated dozens of times before it reached the machine in your polling place. No one ever inspects or approves the software that actually counts your votes.
What does protect elections: Paper ballots and audits.
Wisconsin has paper ballots, but not a single county clerk—not one—looks at those ballots before declaring election results final.
As long as our ballots are packed up on Election Night and kept under seal until they are destroyed 22 months later, Wisconsin elections are no safer than if we were using paperless touchscreen machines.
That's where Wisconsin's decentralized elections can help to protect our elections. State law gives every county clerk two weeks after a general elections—and more if they request it—to review the Election-Night results to make sure they are correct. The county clerks and their boards of canvass are free to adopt any review method they choose—it's up to them.
Any county or municipal clerk could, at any time he or she chooses, open the ballot bags and conduct a legitimate audit. It would be harder for municipal clerks, because they have only a week for review, and they certify only local races anyway. But county clerks have plenty of time to audit, and they certify the state and federal races—the ones most likely to be hacked.
Call your county clerk today and educate them. Tell them that the three safeguards they rely on are not really safeguards at all. Tell them to start—NOW—planning how they will verify the voting machines' Election-Day accuracy after future elections. If your county clerk doesn't know how, refer them to Securing the Nation’s Voting Machines: A Toolkit for Advocates and Election Officials, which has a good list of pointers and resources. Write to your local newspaper to make sure they cover this story.
Then, keep calling your county clerk until you get the answer Wisconsin voters deserve: "Yes, we will make sure your votes were counted correctly before we declare election results final."
Forget about whether Russians hacked election computers in 2016. We've got a bigger problem, and not much time to fix it. The November elections are less than six months away.
When the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC) talk about "election security", they talk only about the voter-registration system. WEC operates that system, and DHS can monitor it.
But the vote-counting system is separate. It resides on no computer that either of them can control, monitor, or inspect. It was outside their range of vision in 2016, and it’s outside their vision now. They don’t talk about voting-machine security because they don't know.
Wisconsin’s vote-counting computers are controlled, protected, and monitored by our local election clerks and by three companies—ES&S, Dominion, and Command Central.
That's all. No one else.
Local election clerks have exactly the level of IT sophistication you think they do. County clerks send our vote-counting software off to Nebraska or Colorado or Minnesota to be reprogrammed for each new election, with no way to notice if it comes back carrying malicious code. A few counties use an application supplied by those companies to reprogram the software themselves. They put a plastic seal on it when they’re done.
Wisconsin’s local election clerks will happily leave a service technician alone with a voting machine or the county’s election-management computer, with no way to notice if he installs malicious code or a wireless communications card. They put a plastic seal on the voting machines for Election Day.
Go ahead—ask them. They seal the software. They seal the machines. They seal the paper ballots that they could use—but don’t—to check the machines’ Election-Day accuracy.
And what about where the real danger lies—within the voting-machine companies? How well does their security guard against external hackers and corrupt insiders?
The companies themselves might not understand IT security. Professor Aviel Rubin of the Johns Hopkins University Information Security Institute checked with the major American voting-machine companies before the 2016 elections and discovered none employed “even one full-time trained expert in computer security.”
Congress, too, has been frustrated in its attempts to get straight answers about the companies’ security practices. When Congressman Ron Wyden tried to get answers from ES&S, he didn't get a response from anyone with 'security' in their job title. Instead, a Senior Vice President for Governmental Relations replied, saying “At ES&S, security is the responsibility of not just one, but all who elect to work for our company.”
This governmental-relations expert reassured Rep. Wyden that ES&S had asked DHS "if they had knowledge of any such security issues involving ES&S to which they responded that they did not." Well, whew.
ES&S—this company where every employee handles IT security and yet the vice president has to ask DHS to find out whether they've had a security breach—is the largest supplier of voting machines to Wisconsin. Just one of their machines—the DS200—counts more than 60% of Wisconsin's votes, including votes from Milwaukee, Dane, Waukesha, and La Crosse Counties.
We cannot make the voting machine companies hire IT security staff before we elect a governor and a US senator in November.
And we cannot make our local election officials into IT sophisticates, ever.
But we can put an end to the honor system. That is, we can force our local election officials to use the paper ballots to detect and correct any miscounts before they declare election results final.
Our local election officials are the legal custodians of the paper ballots. They can unseal them anytime to count votes and make sure the voting machines counted right. At any time before the 2018 midterms, our local election officials could learn about results-audit practices already in use in other states and bring them to Wisconsin.
Do these three things today:
- Contact WEC. Tell them to exercise leadership in getting county clerks to audit election results during the canvass. Tell them to use some of the federal HAVA funds; they’ll know what that is.
- Contact your county clerk. Say you want the county canvass to make sure the voting machines identified the right winners before they certify the election results. If they don't know how, tell them to contact the Election Verification Network or the Verified Voting Foundation.
- Contact your local newspaper editor. Tell him or her that you want to see local journalism take a sober look at voting-machine security right here in Wisconsin—and that doesn't mean writing about plastic seals.
Being a normally flawed human, I cannot resist starting with as we have been saying for six years, Wisconsin's "failure to carry out post-election audits that test the accuracy of election outcomes leaves the state open to undetected hacking and other Election Day problems."
In speaking about Wisconsin, the report concludes: "To protect its elections against potential attack by sophisticated nation-states seeking to interfere in U.S. elections, Wisconsin should adopt robust post-election audits that have binding effect on election results."
CAP researchers picked up on a feature of Wisconsin elections that in-state commentators have missed:
Problems with Wisconsin's election security, along with possible solutions, are not visible unless you look beyond the state level and into the counties and municipalities.
Our state-level agency, the Wisconsin Elections Commission does not control the voting machines. They control only the systems that manage voter registration (WisVote) and that compile already-tabulated election results (the Canvass Reporting System, or CRS).
But the technology that counts Wisconsin's votes is owned and operated by counties and municipalities--not the State.
It is the local clerks, not the WEC, who are responsible for pre-election protective security and for the managerial measures that would detect and correct any Election-Day miscounts.
Not only is pre-election security managed by non-IT professionals, Wisconsin's entire vote-counting system lacks the ability even to detect miscounts, never mind correct them.
Wisconsin's local election officials--bless their hearts--are not IT sophisticates. Asked about the threat of hacking, most will say something like what Sheboygan County Clerk Jon Dobson recently wrote to me: "The equipment is never connected to the Internet, (so) unless someone has figured out a way to hack through the unit's power cord, our equipment is basically unhack-able."
Clerks like Mr. Dobson are not being disingenuous. They genuinely believe that if they cannot see a way to hack the vote-tabulating technology, no one else can, either. Their trust in the voting-machine companies is complete and sincere.
For their education in IT security, Mr. Dobson and his colleagues rely almost entirely on the commercial reassurances of the voting-machine companies. They don't seek the counsel of independent IT-security authorities who could explain the myriad number of ways an elections system can be compromised without Internet connection, particularly by insiders.
Wisconsin's county clerks genuinely do not understand that elections software could be compromised by security lapses outside their vision or control--by the vendors, service companies, municipal clerks, and poll workers.
And as for Internet access, news hasn't yet reached them from their counterparts in Pennsylvania, who found that a voting machine company had installed unauthorized remote access capability on their election computers without their knowledge--something that computer-security professionals had been warning of for years. Like the Wisconsin clerks, the Pennsylvania clerks had been blithely assuring reporters that voting machines were never connected to the Internet--without having checked. When I publicly asked him whether he ever checked Dane County's machines for such unauthorized alterations, Clerk Scott McDonell said that the vendors had told him that would void the machines' warranty so no, he doesn't check. He is not fooling when he says he truly believes the machines to be so very secure that he can doesn't have to check their accuracy before he declares election results final.
And that, fellow voters, is the level of IT naïvete that stands between motivated international hackers and our voting rights.
But we have to be realistic about what we can expect from local election officials. As Prof. Dan Wallach of the Rice University Computer Science Department explained, "You would not expect your local police department to be able to repel a foreign military power."
What we can expect of our local election officials--particularly our county clerks--is that they use the authority and resources already provided by Wisconsin law to manually check accuracy of the computer-tabulated vote totals before they certify election results final.
The only protection can come from using our paper ballots to check the machines' Election-Day accuracy.
That's the solution that 26 states already have in place, with varying degrees of rigor.
It's the solution that we've been advocating for the past six years.
It's the solution that the 2014 Presidential Commission on Elections Administration recommended.
It's the solution that Rep. Mark Pocan wisely wrote into his proposed federal legislation.
And it's the solution that the CAP report recommended for Wisconsin.
Wisconsin reporters and editors need to pick up on it now, too. They need to start asking county clerks the same hard questions about their security practices that they have been asking the WEC about theirs: How do you detect whether the technology worked as intended on Election Day? Do your security and recovery procedures meet national standards? What plans do you have in place for recovery if they fail?
Voters can ask, too. Pick up the phone. Call your county clerk. Get the facts right from him or her. Ask: "At the moment when you sign that certificate declaring the election results to be correct and true, what specifically have you done to verify that the voting machines counted correctly on Election Day?"
Among the 72 county election authorities in this state, not a one will answer: "I follow federal recommendations and conduct a valid post-election audit."