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electionlineWeekly — March 9, 2017

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I. In Focus This Week

The picture of transparency
Dane County, Wis. puts cast ballot images online

By M. Mindy Moretti
electionline.org

Dane County, Wisconsin is taking the ballot selfie phenomena to a whole nother level.

For the first time, following the 2016 general election, the county posted images of all cast ballots online for anyone to view.

“I decided to post them in part because of claims of election tampering and fraud,” County Clerk Scott McDonell said. “Clerks in Wisconsin know this to be false, but it is often hard to disprove an accusation on social media. By posting images and allowing citizens and media to look at the raw data they can see the accuracy of the election for themselves.”  

Although the process is a bit in flux because the county has recently upgraded its accumulation software, but basically the files copied from the election media on to an external hard drive. Then loaded to the county server and made available on a share file site to the public.

Ballots from the November election were saved on ZIP files that, according to the Wisconsin State Journal, need to be opened with downloadable software on the site, but McDonell told the paper that he hopes to have the ballot images in a PDF format in the future.

Only the ballots fed through the machine on election night (early, day-of and absentee ballots) are included. Provisional ballots are not. The results from election night are also included for comparison.

Because the county is using voting equipment that can capture images of each ballot the only additional costs to post the ballots online is staff time. McDonell said during most elections that would be minimal, but could increase with high turnout races.

McDonell said he did speak with the Wisconsin Election Commission about posting the images.

“The only concern was ensuring the secrecy of the ballot, which we determined was preserved,” McDonell said.

Reid Magney, public information officer for the WEC said the commission has not publicly supported or discourage the posting of ballot images.

“Just like any document open to public inspection under the open records law, the government entity may choose to post those types documents on its website,” Magney said. “This allows the clerk to direct individuals to the website to retrieve requested information instead of having to respond to individual public records requests for the same information and spend the time and cost of preparing a disc or other medium to provide it.”

Pam Smith with Verified Voting said there are pros and cons to posting ballot images online. On one hand there is a fear that studying ballot patterns could lead to potential coercion. On the other hand it offers an opportunity to find a “bug” that may result in lost ballots as was the case in Humboldt County, California’s experiment with posting ballot images online.

Smith said a more important element is missing though.

“If Wisconsin conducts robust audits that limit the risk of a wrong outcome slipping through, audits that give authoritative confirmation that the outcome is correct, and does so in a transparent and observable way, that would be a much more valuable effort,” Smith said. “Right now Wisconsin's audits have no ‘teeth’; the goal of the audit is not to find and correct errors that could have altered the outcome, but instead to sanction a vendor if a specified error rate is not met. Better audits will give Wisconsin voters greater confidence.”

Since this was just the first time the county posted the images online, McDonell said there will be more to learn going forward, but that transparency is a good thing.

“We all know how accurate our elections are and having a way to prove that objectively is a very valuable thing,” McDonell said.

Another added bonus he said is that the raw data provided may prove useful to understanding trends and voting behavior.

McDonell said the feedback from posting the ballots online has been positive and the plans to continue to post them for future elections.

“The timing seems appropriate given the world we live in today,” he said.

No word yet though on what Chad Vader thinks of this latest development but McDonell said we could be hearing from him soon.

“Chad and I have had some conversations about getting the band back together,” McDonell said. “Not sure this will be the topic but stay tuned.”