Editor’s note: “Boscobel votes” is an occasional article series that examines the security and integrity of local elections as we approach the midterms.
BOSCOBEL - Boscobel voters can expect changes when they sign in at the precinct next election. The city is replacing the traditional paper “poll book,” in which poll workers tabulate each eligible voter as they check in to vote.
Instead, they’ll be greeted by a “Badger Book” unit—a computer terminal that either IDs registered voters or allows them to register at the polling place.
Boscobel’s city council voted unanimously to switch to the computerized method at their last meeting on June 20. The new machine will cost $6,443 and is being purchased using American Rescue Plan Act funds.
City Administrator Misty Molzof told the council that the computer will reduce by two the number of poll workers required, saving approximately $300 per election.
What’s a poll book?
Simply put, the poll book tracks who shows up and votes.
If you’ve ever voted, you are familiar with the oversized paper poll books. These are compiled centrally, just before each election, from the statewide voter database known as WisVote, which keeps an ongoing tally of both registered and deactivated voters in the state. The list is continuously updated by Wisconsin’s municipal clerks.
When you enter the voting place, poll workers check your name and ID against your listing in the poll book, and both of you sign a John Hancock. If you’re not registered, you can do so with a photo ID and proof of residency, such as a utility bill.
After the election, information from the paper book gets entered by hand into a database that goes back to the state level for analysis and auditing.
Why go electronic?
Badger Book replicates the exact same process as a paper book, according to Robert Kehoe, Deputy Administrator of the Wisconsin Elections Commission, which since 2016 has overseen the state’s elections.
Instead of printing paper poll books, he explained, the state transfers data to an encrypted drive that is loaded onto the computerized poll book, which is not connected to the internet.
In an email to the Dial, Kehoe explained that Badger Books improves accuracy, data quality, and efficiency both at the polling place and in the clerk’s office. Because the computer supplies a scripted template for each and every voter, data entry errors at crowded polling stations are less likely.
“For example, poll workers are prompted to check a voter’s photo ID, and the Badger Book also reminds poll workers exactly what forms of ID are acceptable,” Kehoe wrote. While an individual unit is not directly connected to the statewide data, it should pick out individuals who are ineligible to vote, he added.
When it comes to security and voter fraud, Kehoe argued that Badger Book is more secure than paper. “Anyone with a pen or pencil can modify a paper poll book,” he wrote. And because the electronic book walks each voter through the process step by step, there’s less room for human error. At the end of the night, the machine tabulates the data from voting day so that it can be rectified against the state’s centralized database of voters.
“Paper poll books require tedious and time-consuming manual data entry that often lasts for days and introduces many errors in the data,” he wrote.
Because the Wisconsin vote is evenly split, margins are close, and scrutiny of our processes is high. At the local level, however, vote totals are more conclusive. Like most of southwestern Wisconsin, the Boscobel area broke for Donald Trump in the 2020 election by margins ranging from 10 to 35 percent, according to a precinct-level data analysis conducted by a research team associated with the New York Times. Precincts in rural Crawford County swung more narrowly to President Biden.
By contrast, metropolitan population centers like Madison and Milwaukee voted overwhelmingly for Biden, with margins as high as 90 percent in the central urban areas, with narrower wins in the surrounding suburbs.
At the end of the day, Biden eked out a majority of just over 20,000 votes, with nearly 55,000 votes going to 10 independent candidates, according to Wisconsin election data.
Those totals have faced several legal challenges and state investigations. So far, no irregularities have emerged that would challenge the Biden win in Wisconsin.
Still, several areas of concern were raised by this process, according to Senator Howard Marklein, the republican who represents Boscobel in the 17th District.
Marklein said he gained a new perspective on election security during the pandemic when he volunteered as a poll worker at his local precinct.
“It’s one thing to sit in Madison and come up with ideas for election integrity,” Marklein told The Dial, “But I came away from that experience with a pretty good confidence that locally, the elections are being handled appropriately,” he said.
The senator also sits on the Joint Legislative Audit Committee, which following the last general election, commissioned a non-partisan audit that raised a handful of concerns. According to Marklein, these issues include:
• Private money helping to fund public elections;
• “Indefinitely confined” voters who are exempt from the state’s voter ID requirements;
• “Ballot harvesting,” which allows someone other than a voter or a close relative or caregiver to deliver absentee ballots;
• And the issue of the location of absentee ballot drop boxes, which currently sits with the state Supreme Court.
While these issues deserve non-partisan attention, Marklein cautioned that “for the most part, our elections are secure.”
In his view, the attention to Wisconsin’s elections can only help. “There’s been such a spotlight focused on the election process that I think you’re going to see a lot more poll workers, which I think is a good thing. It’s going to give the public a better understanding of how things work on the ground. It doesn’t matter what political stripe you are, we should all believe that the election, in the end, is accurate and trustworthy.”
Commissioner discusses security
Last month, Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos reappointed Don Millis as the new republican member of the bi-partisan Wisconsin Elections Commission. Shortly thereafter, the commission, which is made up of three republicans and three democrats, elected Millis as its new chair. He had previously served on the commission when it was first formed in 2015, and prior to that, had served on the Wisconsin Elections Board.
In a phone conversation with The Dial, Millis discussed election security and integrity, as we round the corner toward the midterm elections. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Dial: Why did you accept a reappointment to the commission?
Millis: I was reluctant. But I also feel that, for whatever reason, there’s a lack of confidence in the results of elections. And if there was a small way that I could try to help reverse that trend, then why not?
Dial: A sizeable number of voters believe that the last election was fraudulent. What would you say to them?
Millis: Well, I look at it with more of a historical perspective. In 2016, we had polling at the time that a significant number of democrats believed that Hillary Clinton really won the election.
I was a defendant in a lawsuit by [Green Party candidate] Jill Stein who wanted to have a statewide hand recount. I was actually in the hearing room with her attorneys who were saying, ‘Well, we think there’s the possibility that someone could alter results of a tabulating machine by being nearby.’
And now you have then-president Trump saying that he won Wisconsin.
I look at that and I say there are a lot of reasons why confidence is waning. The political actors on both sides have challenged the legitimacy of elections. I also think the internet and social media has allowed people to make allegations.
But we have more techniques and safeguards in place than ever in our history. We have a statewide voter registration. We have photo ID, which we didn’t have.
Dial: What are what are some of the top-level things that the commission needs to address going forward?
Millis: I want to make some suggestions, but they cost money. We have about $1.1 million [from the Help America Vote Act] that we can designate for spending this year. I’m proposing, for example, that we give more election clerks standalone laptops to communicate with the voter registration lists. And that comes with software training and support. These are very secure laptops.
The other thing that I want to do with the money is to increase the number of audits after the election. I would like to up machine audits to 10 percent. We randomly select machines in every county, and we want to make sure that we have all the different types of machines covered.
Another thing I would like to do is create an office within the commission with a staff to police the voter registration list. For the integrity of the system, it seems to me we want to have a Crimestoppers-type hotline to make sure that, for example, someone is not on the central voter list twice, or a convicted felon.
There are also a small number of people use touch pad voting. For people who have difficulty using a pen, you have to have the ability to use touchpad voting. Some smaller communities, that’s all they do. But I strongly argue that we should have a permanent record.
One of the advantages is that 90 percent of the optical scan machines actually take an image of the entire ballot. So, you have a triple check: You have the results of the tablature, you have an image of the ballot that went through, and you have the ballot itself. That really should be a pretty good check.
Dial: What other weak points do you see?
Millis: There was a lot of concern in the last cycle about absentee ballots. One of the things that we’re contemplating is changing the envelope. Right now, you’re trying to put a lot of information and instruction on a very small piece of paper. I mean, it’s a logistical issue. One of the ways maybe to resolve that is to have a mailer envelope and then another envelope that you stick inside that is sealed and opened on election day. Then you can have more information, more instructions to help people vote.Another issue has been ballot harvesting. There were some concerns, and they may be legitimate, about people in nursing homes during the pandemic. Ordinarily, let’s say that I have a relative who’s in a nursing home and can’t get out to vote. As a relative, I might be able to go there and help my relative fill out an absentee ballot and then mail it off or deliver it to the clerk. Well, because of COVID the people couldn’t get in there. There are a lot of allegations, and we may have to make some changes to that process.