Rock County clerk defends deletions of some ballot images

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Frank Schultz
Friday, December 9, 2016

JANESVILLE—The Rock County clerk deleted some of the images of ballots stored in the ballot-counting machines during the presidential recount.

The practice raised questions by a nonprofit journalism organization, but Clerk Lisa Tollefson said she stands by the recount results.

The ballot-counting machines save a digital image of each ballot cast.

Tollefson said she followed the manual for recounts, which states that the machines should be “reset” after each ward is recounted.

Tollefson interpreted the rule to mean that the data should be purged. But a lawyer for one of the campaigns—Tollefson said she wasn't sure which one—observed the process at the Rock County Courthouse this week and convinced her that she should save the images.

Tollefson changed the procedure, saving all the images from the cities of Janesville and Beloit and the village of Clinton, amounting to a majority of the county's ballots.

The original paper ballots were preserved, and the images recorded during the count on Election Day also were saved. State law requires Election Day images be kept for 22 months, Tollefson said.

Another election observer who could not be named because she did not have permission from her party said she talked to the lawyer, who said he was not concerned about any irregularities in Rock County's recount and was complimentary about the process.

The election observer from the Trump campaign, who has been there every day of the local recount, agreed the process here has been admirably open and thorough.

The nonprofit journalism website WhoWhatWhy questioned the practice of deleting the images, suggesting but offering no proof that the vote count might have been manipulated.

“The images are crucial because when paper ballots are counted by machine, the machines are in effect evaluating the images when they count votes,” according to the article, which relied on an investigation by John G. Brakey, “an election integrity activist from Arizona.”

“In Rock County, the average Democratic margin of 17,000 votes plummeted to just 7,000 this time. Of course, those impressive numbers for Trump may all be attributable to unique election conditions, including Trump's appeal, and Clinton's failure to campaign in Wisconsin,” according to the WhoWhatWhy article.

The article said the deletions happened in two of Wisconsin's 72 counties: Rock and Brown, and both counties used machine tabulators, foregoing a hand count that many other counties used.

Tollefson noted that the state did a spot check after the election, recounting by hand all the ballots in the town of Beloit. That recount—before the presidential recount—found no mistakes by the machines.

Some wards were hand-counted during the presidential recount, and those also found the machines were accurate, Tollefson said.

Each ballot fed into the machines was checked for irregularities, and if the voter's mark was unusual, the result was entered by hand, Tollefson said. That practice resulted in small numbers of additions and subtractions of votes across the county.

Unusual ballots included one in which an “X” was written near the oval that was supposed to be filled in, and ones in which the voter circled the candidate's name, Tollefson said.

As for the differences from previous presidential votes, Tollefson noted this was an unusual election. She recalls voters telling her they could not decide whom to vote for, and she noted unusual numbers of county voters opted to vote for no one for president.

The negative campaigning turned a lot of people off, Tollefson suggested.

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