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Wednesday, September 17, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 42.0° F  Fair
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Just how accurate are Wisconsin's vote counting machines?
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McKim: 'We need to have some audits in place for this year's election.'

When Karen McKim takes a check to the bank, she doesn't worry about it getting deposited in the wrong account -- she knows there are safeguards in place. When she buys something at a store, she doesn't always check the receipt to make sure the scanner properly recorded the price, but she's confident the store periodically verifies that its equipment is working properly.

But when it comes to elections, McKim is far from confident that her vote is being properly counted.

"Whatever that machine does when I feed my ballot through, no one is going to check whether it was counted right," says McKim, who lives in Waunakee. "There is no other application of information technology that you can think of where you just punch a button and say, 'Oh, the computer must be right,' and never check it."

McKim, who is active with the Wisconsin Grassroots Network, is raising alarm about whether the state's voting system is accurate and trustworthy. As the United States turns its vote tabulation completely over to computers, McKim and others worry that mistakes and outright fraud will become more likely.

"You don't need to understand the intricacies of computer security to understand that if computers managed by the likes of Target and the Federal Reserve Bank can be hacked, computers managed by my municipality or county can be hacked," she says.

Scott McDonell, Dane County Clerk, agrees that safeguards are needed.

"Election fraud has a long history in this country and others," he says. "We should always be vigilant for that. It may not be one party or candidate -- it could be an office building in Moscow trying to hack in. Who knows?"

However, McDonell feels that Dane County is on top of the problem. Wisconsin would be an unlikely target for wide-scale tampering, he says. "If there's going to be widespread voter fraud, you wouldn't have it in Wisconsin, because it's so decentralized," he says, adding that other states -- which count votes in central locations -- would be much more susceptible to hacking.

Dane County has additional safeguards, McDonell says. To prevent hacking, voting machines in each polling location are not connected to the Internet; likewise, the server in the clerk's office is not connected to the Internet. After votes are tallied by machines at each polling location the results are communicated to the clerk's office via encrypted telephone modems. Madison's results are carried on a thumbnail flash drive across the hallway in the City-County Building to the county clerk's office, where they're transferred to the county's computers.

The county's new voting machines also make a digital scan of every single ballot, which can make checking and recounting ballots much easier.

Nevertheless, McDonell agrees with one of McKim's suggestions: regular, random audits of results of a few polling locations, to make sure the machines are doing their jobs. He's proposed $2,500 in next year's budget to do this.

"We would do it after every election to see how we are doing, and checking vote totals against the machine," he says. "It's not so much from the point of view that people are fixing the elections, but finding out what are the best practices."

McKim would like to see every county in the state do random auditing of some machines before initial election results are made "final" by the clerk's office. Statisticians would be able to measure the sample against the overall results, to see if there's a potential issue.

Although she'd like to see state legislation requiring such audits, she adds that county clerks can do it on their own. "The administrative practices that could detect any miscount would be a very easy and cheap thing for any election official to do," she says.

McKim applauds McDonell's efforts, but wishes there would be audits after this November's general election, which includes a governor's race that is likely to be close and contentious.

“Emotions are gong to be high, it's going to be tightly contested, and we're going to have people claiming fraud whether there's fraud or not," McKim says. "We need to have some audits in place for this year's election, something transparent, no matter which way it turns out, to make sure those results are going to be verified."

But even if county clerks don't follow up on these measures, McKim says citizens can help check fraud themselves. The state allows for people to observe poll workers do their jobs, watching as machines are inspected and observing the counting of write-in votes.

She envisions a day when election work is similar to jury duty, and citizens are required to work at polls and help verify results. "I think that would be wonderful," she says. "But since we don't have it required now, people need to step up to the plate and volunteer."

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