TOWN OF PORTER
Voters who wonder if their votes are properly recorded by those ballot-scanning machines could take heart from a process that took place across the state this week.
State law requires spot checks of ballot-counting machines in every county every two years after the fall elections. The town of Porter in northern Rock County was one of the municipalities randomly selected for an audit this year.
A Gazette reporter and a representative of the local League of Women Voters, Linda Reinhardt, watched the entire process Tuesday in the town hall.
In the end, the counters found no errors by the machine, although for some tense moments, they scrambled to figure out what happened when the machine’s totals and the human count did not match up. More on that later.
Audits conducted across the county likewise found no major problems, said Rock County Clerk Lisa Tollefson.
“I like the fact it shows our machines work correctly. It’s another peace of mind we give to the voters that shows what we do is accurate,” Tollefson said.
The state Elections Commission randomly selects the vote-reporting units to be audited.
Sometimes the units are entire towns, as in the case of Porter, and sometimes they are single wards in a city, as was the case this year in the city of Beloit.
The city of Janesville and the town of Rock also were selected, but those wards were small sections of the town or city where no one lives, so no audits were required, Tollefson said.
Audits also were held in the towns of Center and Harmony.
Audits help ensure vote counts are up to the federal standard of one error in 500,000 ballots, according to the Elections Commission website.
“If a piece of equipment did not meet standards—which has never happened since audits began in 2006—the Elections Commission could order the municipality or county with defective equipment to take remedial action, such as purchasing new equipment,” the website states.
Wisconsin is one of 41 states that conduct regular audits, although the rules for audits vary, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Three more states conduct audits only under certain conditions.
Town Clerk Nancy Towns said Porter had not been selected to conduct an audit in her 18 years as clerk.
“This year, it’s probably a good idea to do it, but it’s inconvenient because we are a small township,” Towns said.
For six hours, Towns and three others counted—and sometimes recounted—670 ballots.
They divided the ballots into 13 stacks of 50 each and one stack of 20.
They counted in teams of two. Each team member counted half a stack. Then they exchanged their stacks so ballots were counted twice.
They made mistakes, but the double-checking helped them catch all but one of their errors. More on that later.
The state required them to count the presidential votes, including the minor-party candidates, as well as the races in the 2nd Congressional District, the 43rd Assembly District and the uncontested race for county clerk. That added up to 10 races on each ballot, times 670 ballots, for 6,700 individual votes.
They also counted write-ins and cases in which the voter didn’t make a choice.
Normally, a U.S. Senate race would be counted, but there was none in Wisconsin this year, Tollefson said, so the state selected Tollefson’s own race instead.
The process resembles the recounts taking place in Dane and Milwaukee counties, but with a big difference: The counters only checked to see if the machine had counted correctly. They were not tasked with determining a voter’s intent on an ambiguously marked ballot or dealing with partisan observers looking for mistakes.
Towns joked at one point that to the observers, it must be like watching paint dry.
It was slightly more interesting than paint- watching for most of the day. The only noises were the shuffle of papers and voices of the four counters, which were muffled by their masks and the white noise of the town hall’s furnace fan.
“Perfect!” Towns exclaimed several times as she and Lisa Imhoff compared their counts.
The work was much slower than the vote-counting machines. It was painstaking and monotonous.
Then three interesting mistakes popped up during the final tally.
As they counted up the totals on their tally sheets, the counters found 379 votes for incumbent Democrat Don Vruwink in the 43rd Assembly District. But the machine counted only 378.
And in the 2nd Congressional District race, the human count was 274 for Republican challenger Peter Theron, while the machine counted 273.
Tim Reed, the chief election inspector on Election Day, was determined to find out what happened. He grabbed the stack where the error originated and located the problem: The same voter in both those races didn’t put enough ink in the ovals, so the machine registered no-votes.
Expressions of relief followed. Towns chuckled. Reed’s counting partner, Jerry Smith, sighed.
“We all see it, but the machine couldn’t,” Reed said.
The machines are set to count a vote only if enough ink has been applied to the oval on the ballot, Tollefson said. In this case, the voter made what looked like an “X” inside the oval, not enough for the machine to notice it.
Voters are warned about that, and the ballot itself included a diagram showing how an oval should be colored.
The same voter did put enough ink in the other races, however, and those votes were counted.
Tollefson said the audit is not designed to find such errors, so those two votes won’t be counted. The additional votes wouldn’t have changed the outcome.
One more error came up in the final tallies: The human counters found 277 votes for Vruwink’s Republican challenger, Beth Drew, but the machine counted one more, 278.
Again, Reed went to the ballots. He and Smith recounted the stack where the numbers were off and found that despite all precautions, the human counters had made a mistake. The machine was right.