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Citizens group auditing statewide recall election results—by hand

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Neil Johnson
July 11, 2012

— The Rock County Clerk’s Office opened its doors to an unusual request Tuesday.

A group of six concerned citizens wanted to cross-check Rock County’s election results of last month’s gubernatorial recall election—by hand.

The group members, who said they were part of the action group Election Fairness, had filed an open records request July 2 with Rock County and Wisconsin’s 71 other counties.

Its members seek to hand-count paper ballots in storage at counties around the state to determine whether results on paper ballots match electronic tabulations that counties used to total votes in the June 5 recall election between Gov. Scott Walker and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, said James Mueller of Cross Plains, the group’s attorney.

Most Wisconsin municipalities rely on electronic voting machines to tally votes from paper ballots. The electronic totals are recorded and added to late-arriving absentee ballots during a post-election canvass.

That’s how counties arrive at official election results that they certify with the state.

But members of Election Fairness say they believe electronic vote tabulation could be a flawed system. The group argues electronic voting machines can misread ballots and lead to mistakes that can skew election results.

There is also fear that voting machines can be tampered with, Mueller said.

“We’re worried that outsiders or even insiders … that make the machines and maintain them and program them can manipulate the machines to come up with the outcome that they want,” Mueller told WCLO radio in an interview Tuesday.

In an interview with The Gazette, Mueller pointed to wide discrepancies in a recount of the state Supreme Court race in 2011. In some counties, sealed bags with ballots were in rough shape, leading some to believe that vote-tabulation machines had been hacked and the paper ballots re-sorted, Mueller said.

He also cited the 2011 state Senate recall elections, in which he said thousands of votes were miscounted or uncounted.

The group isn’t sure what the scope of its audit will be, but it plans this week to have dozens of volunteers hand-counting ballots in counties around the state, Mueller said.

Election Fairness says it is nonpartisan and affiliated with the action group Wisconsin Citizens for Election Protection.

The group decided to start hand-counting ballots in Rock County not because it had an inkling that voter fraud had occurred there but because Rock County Clerk Lori Stottler was the first official to accommodate the group’s request with “few hurdles,” Mueller said.

Stottler said she got the same understanding Tuesday when the group showed up to hand-count ballots.

“They don’t see any problems within the work ethic of Rock County or the elections workers. They’ve specifically indicated that they think the (electronic) tabulators might not be accurate,” she said.

One member, Jeff Kravat, a Dane County resident who has been a volunteer voter registration deputy in Madison and Middleton, said the group hasn’t decided how it would use findings of its audits.

“If we find some anomalies that are really disturbing, we’ll make something more out of this,” he said.

Open records laws allow anyone to review voting records, although the law’s not clear on what fees municipal governments could charge for parts of those requests.

This is likely the first time a group of citizens has attempted to set up a statewide hand-count audit of ballots after an election, said Wisconsin Government Accountability Board spokesman Reid Magney.

Such a request is possible because counties are required to keep paper ballots in secure storage for weeks after an election.

Rock County’s June 5 election ballots were being kept sealed in tamper-proof plastic bags in a locked meeting room in the courthouse. The county had saved the ballots the required 30 days after a state election.

The county was slated to destroy the ballots this week, but it’s holding them until the group is finished with its audit, Stottler said.

Stottler allowed the group access to the storage room Tuesday. There, the six people opened ballot bags and manually counted ballots. Stottler made the group wear rubber gloves to prevent ballots being marked or spoiled, and she spent four hours Tuesday supervising the group’s audit.

The group said it counted thousands of ballots Tuesday, placing them in separate piles—one containing votes for Walker and the other with votes for Barrett. The group planned to spend five hours today resuming its count.

The group counted ballots from the villages of Clinton and Orfordville and from voting precincts in the cities of Janesville and Beloit, Stottler said. So far, the group found no discrepancies between its hand-counted totals and the county’s electronic totals.

Rock County uses a universal set of electronic vote-tallying machines it has had in place since 1997 and fully available to all towns in the county since 2005.

In a regular election, the county can have anywhere between five to 10 paper ballots that don’t match electronic tabulation for a variety of reasons, Stottler said.

Mueller said his group is looking for more transparency for voters. It believes hand-counts could be a “highly accurate” way of revealing breakdowns between paper votes and electronic counts.

“Personally, I’d like to see something that’s verifiable,” he said. “Right now, when they’re tabulated by machine—they’re not allowing (manual) cross-checking.”

“Real-life” state audits of electronic voting machines have shown the machines are extremely accurate, Magney said. The GAB considers state protocols for testing the machines to be adequate.

Mueller and others in his group say they hope that’s the case. If the audits yield no major anomalies “then we’ll say, ‘Yes, the system does work well,’” Mueller said.


 

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