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Experts: Michigan Election Tech Can Improve on Human Error

Michigan’s election software systems have some room to improve when it comes to catching human errors, experts say after at least two cases of flawed early results reporting on Election Day.

by Gus Burns, mlive.com / November 12, 2020
A voter holds up their sticker after casting their ballot at the Dow Event Center in Saginaw, Mich., during Election Day on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020. (Kaytie Boomer/MLive.com) TNS

(TNS) — Michigan’s election software systems should be better at catching human error, experts say after at least two cases of flawed early results reporting on Election Day.

Some Republican leaders point to the errors among several reasons they believe the 2020 election results lack integrity. Meanwhile, state officials assure the public there is nothing to worry about.

These mistakes were exceptions, the result of user error and fail-safes are in place that would have caught the inaccuracies before they were certified anyway, Michigan Secretary of State  Jocelyn Benson’s  office said.

“The erroneous reporting of unofficial results from Antrim county was a result of accidental error on the part of the Antrim County clerk," Benson’s office said. “The equipment and software did not malfunction and all ballots were properly tabulated. However, the clerk accidentally did not update the software used to collect voting machine data and report unofficial results.”

Iowa University Professor  Douglas W. Jones  has worked with election software for a quarter century. He said “silly clerical errors" should always be expected, but voting software could do much more to protect the integrity of election results.

The Antrim problem

Just after midnight on Wednesday, Nov. 4Randy Bishop  was at the TCF Center in Detroit working as an election challenger when he first noticed something seemed off.

“My phone started blowing up with what the heck’s going on in Antrim County,” said Bishop, who lives there. “Your county went blue for Biden.”

President  Donald Trump  won Antrim County convincingly in 2016, receiving 62.4%, or 8,469 votes, compared to  Hillary Clinton , who received 32.8%, or 4,448 votes.

“I know this county forward and backwards, and I knew immediately as soon as I looked at the numbers that they were completely inverted,” said Bishop, whose a conservative talk-show host and chair of the Antrim County Conservative Union. “It didn’t take a mental giant to figure out that it was screwed up and honestly I don’t know how the clerk could have gone home and gone to bed with those numbers on a report.”

Bishop said he couldn’t reach the Clerk’s Office until the following morning, at which time he notified staff of the suspected error. County election results were removed from the website, recounted and corrected.

The cause

Antim County is among 65 Michigan counties that use Dominion Voting Systems Equipment, which runs software created by a company named Election Source.

“The equipment and software did not malfunction and all ballots were properly tabulated,” the SOS Office said. “However, the clerk accidentally did not update the software used to collect voting machine data and report unofficial results.”

Jones, who’s worked extensively with Dominion machines and software, said “two clerical errors” actually contributed to the problem.

“There was an error earlier in the election process when some candidates (or proposals) were left off some ballots in some precincts in the county," he said. “Of course, that’s a big mistake and they caught it."

The next step was to alter the “configuration files" on the precinct tabulators so they could read ballots and produce the results properly and communicate the results to the computer that compiles unofficial results at the county level.

But not all precinct ballots changed.

“They figured: the ballots in those precincts were OK, so we can leave those scanners without reloading the (new configuration files) because it’s so much work. Well, it turned out that was the mistake."

Jones said each candidate or proposal receives a numerical code that the votes are attached to. When you add a candidate or proposal question, it can shift the code attached to the various candidates. Even though the print-out at the precinct level appeared accurate, the unseen digital data was incorrect, and when it was compiled, the computer couldn’t properly read the results, resulting in jumbled totals.

Once it was realized the totals generated by the county-level software didn’t match the precinct results, Antrim County Clerk  Sheryl Guy  said she and her staff manually reentered results from about 30 feet of printout “tapes” from each of her 16 precincts and 15 townships.

Jones believes this error could have been avoided with better programming by the election software companies.

“Any software that’s used in a clerical environment should have provisions to check its own integrity,” Jones said. If it’s important that the software receive data from a sources that is configured the same way, it’s something the program could check and flag “to make sure they’re not reading nonsense."

Jones said election software often lacks simple integrity checks. For instance, they’re rarely programmed to alert the user if the total number of votes exceeds the precinct turnout or the jurisdiction’s total number of registered voters.

“The software ought to know something about the turnout, independent of the vote totals," Jones said. “If that sum exceeds the turnout for that precinct, then it should be flagged immediately. You shouldn’t wait for somebody to be checking that by eyeball."

Software without simple safety valves to catch expected human errors, “shouldn’t have come to market," according to Jones.

Fail-safes

Guy, Antrim County’s clerk, agrees with the SOS that even without the keen eye of people like Bishop or software designed to catch anomalies, there are enough procedural checks and balances to ensure accurate vote totals.

Here’s the process as relayed by several clerks MLive spoke with from various counties:

A voter fills out their ballot and it’s fed into a tabulator machine.

When the polls close, the machine prints off all the collected results, which includes the number of votes for each candidate and proposal.

The tabulator also creates a digital version of the results that is kept on digital tape or something similar to a “thumb drive” used for digital storage.

The precinct chair matches the total number of ballots recorded by the tabulator machine to the number tallied by poll workers.

The results printout is placed in an envelope, the digital recording is sealed in a bag and both are sent to the county clerk.

The county creates a report of unofficial results using the digital data, not the printouts. In the case of Antrim County, some of the printout and digital data did not match.

Before a county certifies results, its Board of Canvassers are required to match the computer-generated totals to the totals reflected on the paper printouts.

The state Board of Canvassers then reviews the work performed at the county level.

The state in 2018 began conducting post-election “risk-limiting" audits that look closely at the accuracy of local elections. These audits, which were expanded statewide in August using a random sampling of ballots from that election, are “designed to catch any errors in the tabulation process and the software process because they essentially confirm that ballots that are voted into machines are accurately counted,” SOS Benson said.

Guy, who is a Republican, insists there was no outside manipulation or fraud that impacted the results in her county.

While Jones sees deficiencies with election software, he recognizes it’s being used in “a human context."

"We have election administrators who are looking at the results and saying, hey, wait a minute, something’s wrong,” Jones said. “So as a whole, the system is working, but it could work better.

“It’s just the software isn’t checking its own sanity well.”

Rochester reversal

When a sleep-deprived and anxious  Adam Kochenderfer  woke up the morning following his county commission election in Oakland County, he pulled up the county results online.

Nothing to be alarmed about, said Kochenderfer, an incumbent Republican representing Rochester and Rochester Hills for the last five years.

“There were still six precincts that needed to be reported and I was ahead at the time,” Kochenderfer said. “So I was waiting. At maybe 11 a.m. the county’s website showed that all the precincts had reported and that I had lost by 104 votes.”

Kochenderfer expected a close race all along. He then called to congratulate challenger  Melanie Hartman , a Democrat.

I received a call the next day, about 3 p.m., from the Oakland County Elections Division," Kochenderfer said. “They told me there was an error in the reporting and that I’d actually won by over 1,100 votes, and that was a surprise to say the least.”

Rochester Hills Clerk  Tina Barton  said the error arose because some absentee votes were accidentally submitted to the county twice.

“The first time the file was sent, it was sent in error under the title of ‘precinct’ and they should have been sent under title of ‘absentee,’" Barton said. “So it sent, but we didn’t see it populate (under the county results) in absentees, so the file was sent later, again, and it populated absentees as it was supposed to.

“So in essence, the (absentee votes) were counted twice.”

'The ‘system worked’

Barton said the error was initially caught because voter turnout on the county website reflected greater than 100%, an impossibility.

“What’s really important for people to recognize ... is that we’ve always had a canvassing process which always has unofficial results,” Barton said. “Michigan has a lot of great gatekeepers to the process where we can catch things like this before the results are certified.”

Kochenderfer agrees that the “system worked.”

“The error was caught,” he said. "I wasn’t the one who caught it.  Tina Barton  caught it, and the county did as well, and so I’m a little heartened by that.

“I’m confident that it was simple human error and there was no voter fraud in this instance."

Regarding claims of voter fraud made by Trump and other Republican leaders, Kochenderfer said he’s not heard “any evidence of widespread voter fraud."

“That being said, the Trump campaign has a right to look at the results, to look at the facts,” he said. “If they believe there is evidence of voter fraud, there’s a process for viewing that evidence. I think everybody needs to take a deep breath and let that process play out.”

Barton noted that Michigan has a paper ballot backup system, so if questions ever arise with vote totals, they can be double-checked. A U.S. District Judge ordered a manual recount in Michigan following the 2016 presidential election in response to a lawsuit filed by Green Party presidential nominee  Jill Stein . Before it was completed, an Appeals Court intervened and halted the process.

Stein filed similar recount requests in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. In each state, President Donald Trump’s campaign fought recount attempts.

Lingering doubt

Laura Cox , chair of the Michigan Republican Party, has indicated on several occasions since Michigan’s unofficial results were posted, that her party isn’t ready to concede software issues didn’t impact the outcome of Michigan’s election.

On Friday, during both a press conference in Bloomfield Hills and a radio interview with Republican Fox News host  Sean Hannity , Cox cast doubt on results in more than 45 other Michigan Counties where Dominion voting machines are used.

"We are obviously really concerned with that software being used ... " Cox told Hannity. “We are now checking with all these different counties to make sure there weren’t any other irregularities.

“We’re just concerned about making sure that we are hearing all the information about possible fraud, incompetence or issues with the software that is being used."

Following concerns arising from recounts in 2016, the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania produced a report looking at the election machine and software business.

“The seller side of the election technology industry has come to be characterized by a consolidated, highly concentrated market dominated by a few major vendors, where industry growth and competition are constrained,” the report said. " For vendors, the process entails substantial investments in direct marketing to election administrators, engagement in lobbying and other political activity, and even the initiation of litigation proceedings over unsuccessful bids."

Other major election technology companies include Hart Intercivic, which is used in Oakland County, and Election Systems and Software.

The industry is loosely regulated and secretive with its software.

“I’ve always been a little suspicious of the way the election software industry works,” Jones said. "Vendors all sell their software with these non-disclosure agreements and you can’t look at the code at all.

They are protecting intellectual property but are there “really any secrets in this software,” he asked. "What it’s doing is counting one plus one, plus one, plus one.

“I’ve always wondered whether the nondisclosure agreements and intellectual property constraints of the voting system vendors are really serving to protect the public from learning the shoddy quality of the software.”

(c)2020 MLive.com, Walker, Mich. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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