Can we really trust the outcomes of the recall elections?

If there’s anything we’ve learned over the past six months, it’s that the University of Wisconsin-Madison cannot ignore or escape the political storm that has been buffeting Wisconsin.   Regardless of one’s political leanings, one cannot fail to recognize that the outcomes of the November 2010 elections and the recall elections last Tuesday (with two more next Tuesday) all have groundshaking consequences for this campus and, of course, for the entire state.

Many will be surprised and disappointed by last Tuesday’s results; many others will be encouraged by them.  But too few will ask the question, “Can we even trust the reported outcomes?

“Sifting and winnowing” is partly about challenging comfortable assumptions in the search for truth and insight.  With that goal in mind, I urge you to read this October 2010  interview with Jonathan Simon, a leading expert on election integrity.

I cannot ethically quote the entire interview here, so here is a short excerpt that, I hope, will be sufficient to compel you to read the entire interview:

OEN: You did some investigation into the critical Coakley-Brown Senate race in Massachusetts. What did you find and how did you find it?

JS: The Coakley-Brown election in January—which we analyzed in the paper Believe It Or Not –was critical not only because Scott Brown’s unexpected victory gave the GOP the seat necessary to sustain filibusters and effectively block legislation and appointments, but because it was seen in all quarters as the dramatic harbinger of a GOP sweep in November. It was also the political baptism of the Tea Party movement, a clear indication of virulent anti-incumbent fervor, and it set the stage for a string of shocking far-right primary election wins, such as Christine O’Donnell’s in Delaware and Joe Miller’s in Alaska.

There was every incentive in the world to rig Coakley-Brown and every opportunity in the world to get away with it. There were no audits, no spot checks, no exit polls, and no recounts. No actual ballots were ever excavated from their bins at the bottom of the optical scanners which were programmed to read (or misread) and tabulate (or mistabulate) them; so much for optical scanners and a supposed “paper trail.” In fact all that we had to assure us that the votecounts were accurate and Brown’s victory legitimate was pure 100% unadulterated blind faith that the numbers showing up when the memory cards were downloaded at the end of the night were a true recording of the votes cast. Because if, in fact, the vendor corporations, or any insiders with access to the programming and distribution processes, had chosen to serve a private political agenda rather than the public trust, there would be nothing in the official processes of voting, vote counting, and election certification to indicate that such a breach had occurred.

So we had a huge and shocking result with no actual evidence to support it. It could have been legitimate and it could equally well have been a cheap trick conjured in the darkness of cyberspace. So we looked at the only evidence available—the votes of the 71 jurisdictions that counted their ballots in public by hand. We found that Coakley won in these jurisdictions by a margin of 3%, while Brown won by 5% where the opscans did the counting in secret. The chance of this 8% total disparity occurring if the handcounts had been distributed randomly around the state was infinitesimal, one in hundreds of billions. But we knew that the handcounts were not randomly distributed and that handcount and opscan jurisdictions represented discrete constituencies. Perhaps the handcount communities where Coakley won were more Democratic or had a more Democratic voting history, or perhaps they were clustered in a part of the state where Coakley was more popular.

We looked at each of these “benign” explanations in turn and found that none of them was true. The handcount jurisdictions were more Republican; they had voted in exact congruence with the opscan jurisdictions in the previous two (noncompetitive, and therefore not targets for rigging) US Senate races; and they had given Coakley a lower percentage than the opscan communities in her only previous statewide race. Granted Coakley, thinking she was a shoo-in, ran a very lackluster campaign; granted there was a surge of enthusiasm and a big influx of money from the right, making a tight (and riggable) race out of a blowout. But those factors do not explain why some 65,000 handcount voters, seen to be to the right of a random sample and not geographically disposed towards Coakley, came in so differently from the opscan voters. That remains entirely unexplained, unless one is willing to consider electronic vote manipulation, which we know the experts from Princeton to Johns Hopkins to NYU’s Brennan Center to the US Government Accountability Office all have concluded is child’s play.

If you find the questions raised by this excerpt troubling, I urge you to read the entire article from the beginning here.

After that, you would do well to view the Emmy-nominated 2006 documentary Hacking Democracy.

Finally, if you’re willing to spend a couple bucks to download and view Dan Rather Reports: Das Vote via iTunes (scrolled down to find the episode Das Vote), you can do so here.   If not, then here is a transcript (PDF).

It’s all too easy to dismiss the concerns raised by the above commentators and documentaries as paranoid conspiracy theories.  Unfortunately, I have found that it is far harder to actually debunk them.  To my knowledge at least, no one has come even close.

Whether you believe our elections are actually rigged or not, democracy and civil discourse cannot thrive where there is suspicion and distrust.  That’s why we urgently need new safeguards, starting with routine independent audits of vote totals reported by optical scanners — something that, shockingly, is not even permitted under current rules in WIsconsin.

– GP


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11 Responses to Can we really trust the outcomes of the recall elections?

  1. Frank says:

    Are things really that desperate? The Dem team lost its best shot and now you want to claim the field was not level?? Why not just do what Sara does and claim the public was duped by the evil empire? It appears now that after next week it really won’t matter anyway and you are just embarrassing yourself. At least lose with some class and start re-working your agenda to fit reality. Real people are not happy with government and public employees. That is the truth. Getting back unions for them does nothing for the rest of the people in the state. It’s not like those public jobs will go unfilled.
    Take a look at all the well qualified kids without jobs graduating from UW schools this year. You think they would not jump at those jobs even if they have to pay towards their healthcare, etc?
    Time to get in touch with the real world and stop talking to other academics and liberals. Nobody cares much what you think these days.

  2. Barbara With says:

    Sorry you are either under educated about election fraud, living on another planet, blind as a bat or loving that your team is getting their power cheating.

    Take a look at what happened in this state over the past six months. Did you listen to the budget debates? Did you hear program after program being cut that didn’t even have anything to do with the budget? Why selling our power plants for $1? Why does SCOTT WALKER get to make all the rules now, did you know that one?

    Where are the checks and balances? YOU LOVE that Republicans can take no hostages, funnel public funds into black box account that have not accountability for their stealing our coffers, not one amendment, ALEC, the Republican Neocon Legislative Exchange all your cronies are members of and think THAT legislation should run Wisconsin? Sounds like fascism to me and your “arguments” are the propaganda that makes the whole thing run.

    Have you even see Black Box Voting, Hacking Democracy, Steaing America Vote by Vote? Do you know that the voting machines are owned by companies with deep ties to the Republican party and have been proven by more than one university to be completely hackable? Do you know the evidence collected over the years, people who SAW THEIR VOTE Flip? All the analysis, the CNN exit polls that read one way election night and quite another in the morning?

    Then get an education before you become a tool for the hostile takeover of our government And never mind all the other tactics you have been taught to distract from this truth. No more.

    So either help with election reform, which should be nonpartisan but how can it when the Republicans have taken us hostage with it, or get out of the way.

  3. Jeannie Dean says:

    THANK YOU so much for this outstanding synopsis of the “irregularites” seen in the WI Supreme Court recount as they relate to the work of Jonathan Simon of Election Defense Alliance; he is a personal hero of mine; proud to also call him “friend”.

    He is one of the most respected election forensic experts in the country, and has produced report after report that will turn your blood blue from chilling statistical proof of systematic election fraud…from election after election.

    I’m thrilled to find your post, today. I will circulate it wide to the best of my ability.
    Keep up the great work!

    (We’re currently analyzing the data from Tuesday’s RECALL, and it doesn’t look pretty: – link to RICHARD CHARNIN’s TVM WI RECALL analysis. Please take a look, Richard is doing amazing work on this…)

  4. Jeannie Dean says:

    I have posted a link to your piece in the WI RECALL open thread at, here:

    You’re asking a VERY important question with this article, every student / voter / American should be asking the same.

  5. Shelly says:

    Election integrity effects everyone and is not merely a bipartisan issue, it should be non-partisan. If elections are being rigged and you’re a republican and it doesn’t matter to you because your side is winning, you need to realize that there are liberals who can hack computer systems too. And then there are the anarchists….. What can mysteriously swing in one direction in defiance of prior as well as exit polling can just as easily swing in the other direction. All votes need to be counted accurately and that’s the end of it no matter who ‘wins’ or ‘loses’.
    As for state employees: not all are in unions but all pay for their healthcare and their pensions. I have yet to look at a paystub and see “free” in either column. We have always paid and it is the great lie of this debate to suggest otherwise. All employers create compensation packages for their employees and healthcare and pension are deducted first and what remains is take home salary(after taxes, of course).State employees also have no say on where their pension dollars will go and cannot opt out but also can not opt to pay more into the system.

    Election integrity is a separate issue from any recent election. We have numerous examples in other states as well as our own of issues that question the validity of the results. To merely brush it off as partisan whining about a loss is short-sighted.

  6. Danny Goldburg says:

    Election fraud in all forms (means and methods) is wrong. It has been practiced by both both Republicans and Democrats in the past. When election integrity is discussed, everyone should come to the discussion free of political bias with the a desire to advance free and untainted elections. This is hard to do, but it should be the goal.

  7. Anonymous says:

    It seems to me that Frank is dismissing rather than debunking, just like the second-to-last paragraph said.

  8. GP says:

    Well, here’s some new information that gives one pause:

    In a nutshell, consistent large (~10%) between official results and exit poll results. You can explain this in one of two ways: (1) response bias (fewer Rs than Ds participated in exit polls, or (2) erroneous machine tabulations.

    Let’s consider response bias: In Baraboo, you would have to assume that more than one-half of Ds participated in non-partisan exit poll, but less than 1/4 of Rs did. Similar patterns are repeated everywhere.

    In Pardeeville, exit pollers got a response from 438 out of 712 recorded voters, or 62% participation overall. But if you believe the machine totals, only 49% of Rs participated while 70% of Ds did.

    I’m familiar with the citizen exit poll protocol, and I’m having a hard time understanding why there would be such a large response bias. Any insights?

    A crucial missing piece of information is how many voters CHOSE not to participate vs. those who simply never passed the exit poll station (e.g., if the station wasn’t operating the entire time or was located at only one potential exit.

    If we assume that some percentage of the recorded number of voters never even saw or went near the exit polling station, then the apparent response bias among those who did becomes even larger.

  9. Chris says:

    I am not trying to dismiss or debunk here, just asking for clarification: Do the recorded vote counts include absentee ballots and early votes? If so, that could significantly affect the numbers of voters who had the opportunity to participate in the exit poll and the results could possibly be explained if, for example, a large percentage of early/absentee votes were for the Republicans.

  10. GP says:

    Chris: The offiicial totals include absentee votes. Exit polls obviously do not. Yes, this is a source of ambiguity (as is the aforementioned response bias). It would help to know how many absentee/early votes were cast in the listed wards. That information should theoretically be available (with some effort) but is not currently known.

    The exit polls are merely suggestive, not definitive. Unfortunately, the fundamental problem with current voting procedures is that actual votes CANNOT be independently verified short of a full hand-recount, and even that can’t be achieved with any votes that were cast on touch screens.

    The most important message is not that there is proof that elections ARE being rigged but rather that the public currently has absolutely no way to be confident that they are not. That should be great cause for concern, especially given the information in Jonathan Simon’s interview (which I hope everyone here has read) and elsewhere.

    If anyone is not concerned, I’d honestly like to understand why. It’s no fun being written off as a conspiracy theorist, and I would be more than happy to re-join the ranks of those who have implicit trust in the security of our elections. But I need reasons.

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