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Life Arts    H2'ed 5/16/11

A Closer Look at the Ongoing Wisconsin Recount

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My guest today is Brian Pruka. You're a Wisconsin resident currently observing the recount for the local Supreme Court race.  What got you interested in this process?

Hi, Joan.  I am, as you said, a Wisconsin citizen, 47 years old. Right now I work a couple of part-time and temporary jobs to get by. I am an ecologist by training, and I work in the field of wildlife conservation during the summer. Since I'm not employed at a full-time job, I have some time to look into what is going on with the Waukesha County recount.

I went to the Waukesha County Courthouse last Monday, May 9, to see for myself what is going on with the recount. I stayed 4.5 hours. I live in Madison, a 2.5 hour round trip and $16 in gas money, so the rest of the week I've just checked in to an Internet livestream video at 
< www.livestream.com/waukeshacounty >. Anyone can watch, although the way the camera is set up, you can't see most of what is going on. It is far, far from a complete video documentation.

I first got interested in electoral issues during the 2000 presidential election. My preferred candidate then was Ralph Nader. The so-called "spoiler" issue bothered me tremendously--the fact that my vote for Nader meant one less vote for Al Gore, the candidate who was most likely to defeat George W. Bush, who I definitely did not want to be elected. I read an article somewhere about Instant Runoff Voting, which obviates the spoiler issue. That whetted my appetite for reading more about electoral systems used in other countries. We really don't have very good voting systems here in the USA. Our "winner-take-all" system leaves a lot of voters without representation. There are better systems and I like telling people about them because we deserve a better voting system than the one we've got. Other countries have a "Prius" for their voting system, and we are still driving a Model-T Ford.

I got interested in the WI Supreme Court recount because I was appalled that the Waukesha County Clerk could fail to report an entire city's vote total -- over 14,000 votes!-- and just say oops and not have anyone look into it. Really, if you or I failed that colossally at our job, we would be fired.

The fact that these "late-discovered" votes provided just barely enough of a winning margin to force the losing candidate to have to pay for a recount (rather than it be paid for by the state of Wisconsin) made things look that much more dubious. And then there were articles in the press noting how Waukesha County Clerk used to work for the candidate who had lost by a razor's edge--lost, that is, until Ms. Nickolas discovered her error of not reporting an entire city's votes.

I want to know how it is possible that Waukesha County didn't have a system in place to double and triple check vote totals before reporting them. That seems real basic to me -- a fundamental failure.

Our Government Accountability Board, which is charged with overseeing Wisconsin's elections to make sure they are fair and legitimate, would have let the whole thing pass without investigation, except that the initial-winner-two-days-later-loser candidate, Joanne Kloppenburg, decided to exercise her right to request a recount--a recount she has to pay for.

If that is the kind of oversight the GAB provides of our voting system, then we citizens need to raise hell and look into this ourselves.

I want to know what happened. People in Wisconsin are angry over this. We have a right to oversee the voting system and make sure that it is fair and functional.

I can't disagree with anything that you've said so far, Brian. What can you tell us more specifically about what you've observed, either on the spot in Waukesha or remotely, about the recount effort?

I've only been personally present at the Waukesha recount once. That was Monday, May 9th from 2:30pm until 7pm. I was motivated to make the 2.5 hour round-trip drive to Waukesha after I saw the May 5th photos on-line showing the open, unsecured ballot bags brought in to the recount that day.

The recount is being held in the Waukesha County Courthouse cafeteria. When you first get there, it is hard to make sense of what is going on, as there are lots of people huddled around ten small tables, lots of talking and hubbub. It's a confusing jumble.

Those of us present as citizen observers are required to sit in a gallery just outside the area with the many tables staffed by volunteer "tabulators." You are actually able to sit quite close, only six feet away from the closest tabulator tables. But it is far enough away that you can't read anything on either the poll books being reconciled or the ballots being examined for mis-marked ballots or write-ins.

Also present are two Sequoia ballot scanners.

One thing people should know is that about half of the ballots being recounted in Waukesha County are being recounted by feeding them through the Sequoia scanners. That's right, half the ballots are not being recounted by hand, they are just being fed through the machines. My understanding is that only 1/3 of the counties in Wisconsin were required to hand count their ballots.

I think all the ballots should be recounted by hand. According to what I have read at the Citizens for Electoral Integrity Minnesota website (www.ceimn.org), recounts in Minnesota are entirely hand-counted.

But our state's electoral oversight agency, the Government Accountability Board (GAB), set up the guidelines for the recount and they decided that only some of the ballots required hand recounting. My understanding is the GAB decided that ballots originally tallied by the newer version of the Sequoia scanning equipment didn't need hand counting because these machines have two memory cards, and since one of the memory cards is apparently kept and sealed with the ballots after the polls closed, the GAB felt this was good enough proof of what the vote totals were and so a machine recount was adequate.

So it sounds to me like the GAB has presumed that the scanner machines are flawless and that there is no manipulation of the vote-tallying software in these machines.

We don't have immediate post-election hand-counted audits of random precincts like they do in Minnesota, nor do we have a system of exit-polling in place as a way to safeguard against computer vote manipulation, so I don't see how we can have any assurance at all here in Wisconsin that computers have counted the vote without fraud or error.

It seems like a hand recount is essential. But our GAB has decided to trust computers.

So guess where the computers used for the Waukesha recount are stored each night? In the office of the County Clerk, the office of the person who "forgot to push the save button" in her Microsoft Access file of vote totals and thereby forgot to include over 14,000 votes in the election results she published for Waukesha County the night of the election.

Now the Waukesha County Clerk, Kathy Nickolaus, has recused herself from participating in the recount. But according to people who have been attending the recount fairly often over the past three weeks, Ms. Nickolaus is sitting up in her office at the Courthouse during the day while the recount is going on in the Courthouse's basement cafeteria. Seems to me that she should not be in the courthouse at all during the recount, let alone sitting in the office where the recount computers are stored every night!

We are supposed to trust all of this.

I absolutely cannot trust the recount unless it is all by hand.

And even then, those ballots were sitting in Ms. Nickolaus' custody for three weeks after the election. As many of your readers have probably heard, several of the sealed bags holding the ballots have arrived at the recount with gaping holes in the bags.

Personally, I kind of doubt that Ms. Nickolaus has been physically altering thousands of ballots. But I think if we are going to bother with a recount at all, we should be hand counting all of the ballots, examining them closely to make sure they have not been altered.

If Nickolaus is part of vote fraud, it is much more likely that she/they did it through manipulation of the computer software that counts the votes. And we don't have any kind of system set up here in Wisconsin to protect against that.

My hope is that we here in Wisconsin will form a citizens group like the CEIMN group they have in Minnesota that will force Wisconsin to adopt a by hand recount procedure and to adopt a system of post-election auditing of random precincts to insure against computer manipulation of vote-tallying.

Perhaps we need an exit-poll system as a second back up against computer manipulation. I think that combination would be enough to insure that all the votes are indeed counted and counted correctly, although some people that hand counting all ballots the night of the election is the only way to prevent computer-based voting fraud. From what I hear, they hand count all the ballots on election night in New Hampshire.

One thing is for sure. We Wisconsin citizens need to organize to oversee our voting system. Our Government Accountability Board is not doing the job that needs to be done.

It's quite disturbing to think that Ms. Nickolaus and those ballots have been sharing office space. But don't be in such a hurry to emulate New Hampshire. According to Nancy Tobi, New Hampshire resident and long-time democracy warrior, "Almost 90% if not more of NH ballots are run through optical scanners on election night and not hand counted at all." All of us are in a pickle with votes we can't see or count and chains of custody that can be and are easily breeched.  

There's a lot of work to be done and shining some light on what's actually going on and how our elections work, or don't, is an important first step. Thanks so much for talking with me, Brian. And good luck in Wisconsin. There's a lot riding on this race.

Although the corporate media has been mostly silent or uncritical of the process, BradBlog has been extensively covering this recount effort, asking all the right questions. Go there and read up on it. What's happening in Wisconsin will have far-reaching consequences elsewhere, including, sooner or later, where you live.
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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)

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