Hacking the recalls: Why we must have hand-counted paper ballots and citizen exit polls.

It goes without saying that the outcomes of the nine Senate recall elections scheduled in Wisconsin will be of intense interest to most of the UW-Madison community.  Forecasting the outcome of elections weeks in advance is always a risky business; nevertheless, we offer the following bold prediction:

In at least some cases, the candidate receiving the lesser of the actual votes cast — perhaps, in fact, the candidate you passionately opposed — will be declared the official victor.

Chances are, you either think we are nuts or you are already upset with the dismal state of elections in Wisconsin, if not the country.  Either way, we hope this article will change your view of  both (a) the security of the elections and (b) the ability of ordinary citizens like you to improve that security.

Here’s a second prediction which gets to the heart of the real problem:

No one — not the Government Accountability Board, not the media, not any elected official, and most certainly not you – has the slightest hope of ever  disproving our first prediction in light of current election procedures and practices.

While our first prediction is open to debate, the second is rock solid. Why? Because our appallingly compromised election procedures in this state are simply incapable of detecting or preventing election fraud, due to a combination of wholly inadequate statutory safeguards and criminally negligent enforcement.

(Note by the way, that we are not talking about voter fraud, which was ostensibly the reason behind the recently enacted voter ID law.  Both the prevalence and practical significance of voter fraud is a discredited myth.  If you want your candidate to win an election dishonestly, it is far easier and more effective to rig the counting of the ballots on the electronic voting machines. We find it interesting and significant that those in the Wisconsin Legislature who rammed through the voter ID law have so little to say about the far greater threat of election fraud. )

Election fraud is not just a hypothetical concern.  In addition to strong circumstantial evidence in countless other cases, instances of clear fraud have been uncovered that led to actual indictments in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, and Clay County, Kentucky.   Echoes of Cuyahoga can be heard (by those inclined to hear them) in the recent Waukesha recount.

Experts on election integrity have been sounding two main alarms for at least ten years:  (1) it’s far too easy to rig elections in ways that are difficult to detect, and (2) there is considerable circumstantial evidence that it is regularly occurring.

Consider this:  Approximately 1.48 million votes were cast in the Prosser v. Kloppenburg election. The final published difference between them was a mere 7,004 votes, so flipping only 3,502 of them could have given the election back to Kloppenburg.  That’s only a single vote flipped (or, alternatively, two Prosser votes simply discarded) per 422 cast!

Now consider this:  Electronic voting machines use proprietary software to tabulate votes.  Not even election officials are allowed to view or test the integrity of the software or the memory cards. The counting of votes simply cannot be observed or verified by the voting public or the election officials.  It is impossible to know whether it is being done correctly and honestly. We are being told to take it on faith that the voting machine vendors, and those who have access to the machines, are honest.  This is not merely risky, it is fundamentally antithetical to democracy.

The Emmy-nominated documentary Hacking Democracy (free viewing online, 81 min.) presents a shocking demonstration of how easily electronic votes can be hacked, and it also offers troubling evidence that election rigging is actually occurring.  Even if you don’t read beyond this point, please view Hacking Democracy and urge family, friends, and acquaintances to watch it as well.  You will never view our elections or electronic voting machines the same way again.

We’re accustomed to hearing the phrase “innocent until proven guilty” applied to suspects being tried for crimes, and that’s as it should be.  But we in the United States, more so than in many other developed countries, inappropriately apply the same standard of evidence to our elections. Our naive assumption is that unless unambiguous evidence of fraud or gross error is actually uncovered, it most likely didn’t occur.  If you can’t see it, it must not exist.  This is what those who corrupt the election process count on.

Election fraud, like any crime, requires both motive and opportunity. And ample motive can already be found on either side of the current ideological divide in our country.

Imagine the zealous conservative who sincerely believes that abortion is murder and that liberal politicians are therefore condoning murder on a large scale.  Or imagine the zealous liberal who sincerely believes that conservative policies will condemn the earth to perish, and soon, from runaway greenhouse warming.  Either of these individuals might be persuaded that it’s morally justified and urgently necessary to commit election fraud in defense of humankind.

Would anyone who cares about honest elections deliberately put either person in charge of actually overseeing and enforcing election procedures? But that’s exactly what we do with our partisan elections for county clerks!

As we saw in the last recount, many judgment calls were made as to which ballots would be declared valid and which discarded.  And whenever judgment is in play, so is bias.  If you are unfortunate enough to live in a county or municipality where your election officials oppose the party or candidate you support, you should be very, very concerned about whether your vote will be fairly counted.

But it doesn’t stop at the county level. Consider further the wealthy industrialist who quite plausibly believes that if a certain pro-regulation candidate for Congress loses, s/he and their allies stand to make millions of dollars more per year.  Might s/he not be tempted to invest considerable political and financial capital in getting voting machines adopted that can be easily and undetectably hacked?  Would they perhaps even get into the business of building them?

We may never be able to eliminate the motive, but we can, and we must, identify and eliminate the opportunities to undetectably rig our elections. Until we do, we cannot rationally assume that elections are clean and fair.  And we therefore cannot rationally trust the official outcomes of elections.

Here, in summary, are the major weak links in Wisconsin elections:

Vote tabulation. Can we be certain votes are being honestly and correctly tabulated by electronic devices?  No. Unfortunately, current procedures and the electronic voting machines themselves provide absolutely no way to independently verify the accuracy of electronic vote counts short of a full hand recount of paper ballots.  And by Wisconsin law, most of the recount must be done on the same electronic voting machines that could have been hacked in the first place. Be aware that the memory and printouts can be made to differ from the real voter intent and that the pre-election testing is useless for detecting fraudulent programming!

Also, although required by Wisconsin law, touch-screen machines used in some districts were found to provide no paper record and thus no voter-verifiable (or recountable) record of the vote!

Chain of custody. For the purposes of a recount, are we ensuring that ballots can’t be added or subtracted between the time they are cast by the voter and the time they are recounted?  As we clearly saw in the recent Wisconsin Supreme Court recount, the mandated procedures for our elections are not always followed. Citizen observers witnessed a stunning range of abnormalities in the labeling/sealing of ballot bags and even discovered a poll tape dated March 30, days before the election.  The poll tape in question, with its time stamp of 1:40 AM, was sworn to as actual votes.  This claim was later retracted only when persistently questioned.

We have  sampled just some of the evidence suggesting that the upcoming recall elections in Wisconsin cannot, and should not, simply be trusted to be honest.  Now we come to the most important part:  What can still be done to restore confidence in the outcomes?

There are in fact a number of effective steps that can still be taken.  All of them require citizen engagement.

  1. Wisconsin Citizens for Election Protection are urging hand-counts for the recalls. They have sent letters to all the clerks asking that they hand-count the recalls. You can contact them at protectwi@gmail.com.
  2. Contact your county and municipal clerks, the election inspectors and the mayor and councilpersons or the town chair and the supervisors. They can authorize the little extra money that it would take to hand-count paper ballots (HCPB) for the recalls in your municipality.   Talk to them about the many jurisdictions in Wisconsin and elsewhere  that already count their ballots by hand.  Acton, Maine (with seven races and two initiatives,  six teams of two people each — a Republican and a Democrat — were able to hand-count, twice, 944 ballots in four hours) and Lyndeborough, New Hampshire are potential models for the rest of the country.
  3. Volunteer to serve in non-partisan citizen exit polls being organized by the Election Defense Alliance to rigorously and independently verify vote tabulations and chain-of-custody of ballots.

Our final prediction:  Unless the Wisconsin recalls are hand-counted in every race, with secure hand-counted paper ballots (HCPB) elections, at least some of them will be rigged, with major implications for the balance of power in the Statehouse.

Alarmist?  Perhaps.  But the only way to be certain is to act immediately to close the massive security holes in our elections.  Please use social media to share the information and links in this article,  and help educate those who naively think that outcome of the recall elections depends solely on getting out the vote, who votes and how they vote.

Protecting election integrity is not ‘left’ or ‘right.’  If any commentator or political leader actively objects to making our elections more secure,  please ask yourself what their real stake is in the current deeply flawed system.

“I consider it completely unimportant who in the party will vote, or how; but what is extraordinarily important is this — who will count the votes, and how.” – Josef Stalin

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Grant W. Petty
Professor of Atmospheric Science
University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Sheila Parks
Founder, Center for Hand-Counted Paper Ballots

This article may be reproduced in whole or part with attribution of authorship and a link to this article. Copyright July 2011, Grant Petty and Sheila Parks.

11 Responses to “Hacking the recalls: Why we must have hand-counted paper ballots and citizen exit polls.”

  1. Mark says:

    Anyone have Kevin Kennedy’s home phone number? I think the public should be calling him in advance of any right-wing election shenanigans. Especially after he failed to find criminal behavior in Brookfield after the criminal election official “found” all those votes the day after the election. He also was behind the awarding of a state contract to a voting software company that came in 3 times higher of a cost than it needed to be. Hmm’mm, wonder where some of that additional money went to?

  2. Heleni Thayre says:

    For those who say that we have no proof that elections are being hacked or that incorrect election outcomes are being certified I’d like to reframe the issue:

    THAT is actually the problem. We cannot prove one way or another that elections are correctly or incorrectly counted – or in some cases that are votes are even correctly recorded. Don’t you think that something is fundamentally wrong with such an election system? We do not have meaningful audits of elections and we no longer watch the ballots being counted with our own eyes.

    With so much power over policy at stake the motive for bad behavior is always there. We have seen plenty of bad behavior in recent years. If we can’t see a thing does that mean it isn’t really there? Certain germs, visible or not can make us very sick. Our elections have a fatal flaw that can make us all very, very sick.

    The cure is actually quite simple: hand counted paper ballots on election night, always in full public view. Within four or five hours we’ll know who won almost every race and we will go to bed trusting our elections in a way we have not done for many years. The alternative could be quite awful.

  3. Gerri Hirst says:

    It is my biggest worry that the elections will be stolen as I believe they have in the past.

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  5. George says:

    I live in Waukesha, I had an opportunity to use an electronic voting terminal at my Ward. I liked how there was a paper strip being printed inside a window, so I could see that what I tapped on the screen was being printed on the paper. This is better than the ones that do not print paper. Still, how do I know that there was not a second paper trail being falsely generated deep inside the machine, or wirelessly linked to a false printer in the other room? I need to trust my partisan County Clerk to have not set up a fraudulent situation.

    Of course, I could not take a copy of that paper home with me, doing so would also constitute proof that I voted a certain way, and could possibly be paid to vote a certain way. My not being able to prove how I voted is a required element of secret ballot, prevents pay-per-vote fraud.

    The old fashioned vote counter was an optical scanner, reads the card I drew lines through. I am an electrical Engineer and Programmer by trade, and it does seem that a machine could be easily “cooked”, and very hard to trace. Only a full, complete alternate-count of 100% of the votes cast would be acceptable proof that the machine was not cooked. Not just on the qualifying run, but must be done on every single election, just in case it comes under suspicion.

    Why must every vote be counted by a visible, audit-able method? Noted in the article above, flipping one vote out of 422 is less than 1/4 of 1%, and that would be enough to change the outcome. Look at your typical opinion poll telling who is ahead, and they claim “there is an error of 5% give or take” due to asking only a handful out of every 100 voters. Exit polls would not catch this, even with 99% of voters participating participating honestly in the exit poll.

    Want to keep counting efficient, keep away from hand counting?
    Then have 2 scanners counting each ballot, one scanner provided by Democrats, one scanner provided by Republicans. Both scanners must have clear transparent ballot passages, the ballot visibly leaving one scanner and seen passing through the second scanner, for any public observer to see. Then the vote tallies of both must match or you go to paper hand-counts with both parties watching.

    Still who guards the ballots while waiting to check? A police union that is favored by one party? The US military? UN or NATO forces?

  6. Evan Ravitz says:

    You can minimize the extra cost of hand-counting paper ballots by calling for volunteers. Here in Boulder, CO we got some 300 volunteers signed up in a couple of days using emails lists. But the County Commissioners went with privatised secret elections anyway.

    The old Datavote punch-card voting system worked fine since the ’70s UNTIL they were PURPOSELY sabotaged in Florida. Dan Rather’s documentary shows 7 printing plant employees say that they were FORCED to use inferior paper they’d already rejected and FORCED to mis-register the perforations which became the “chad” problem:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=quFtd5P2Q8g

    This “failure” caused Congress to pass HAVA (Help America Vote Act) which resulted in $100s of millions for Republican-connected companies and all the problems we’ve had since.

  7. [...] Hacking the recalls: Why we must have hand-counted paper ballots and citizen exit polls [...]

  8. or you can stack and weigh. It is how many uniform things are counted in the real world of logistics and inventory.

    (the short summary)
    http://washburnsworld.blogspot.com/2005/08/hand-count-paper-ballots.html

    The gory details)
    http://www.washburnresearch.org/ElectionIntegrity/HandCountingPaperBallots.htm

  9. Crazy Harry says:

    Mark typed:

    “He also was behind the awarding of a state contract to a voting software company that came in 3 times higher of a cost than it needed to be.”

    What kind of bizzaro world are you living in, Mark? The State Elections Board (at the time) issued an RFP and then awarded the project to the lowest bidder, as required under state law. How dumb are you?

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