Brian Pruka: WHAT I SAW IN WAUKESHA and WHY I AM CONCERNED

May 11, 2011
Brian Pruka


On Monday, May 9th, I drove from Madison to Waukesha to observe the Waukesha County recount of the WI Supreme Court election. I observed from 2:30 pm until the day’s recount was finished at 7pm.

I began the day as a citizen observer. Observers sit in the gallery, a row of chairs behind a line that separates them from those conducting the recount (the official “tabulators”) and campaign-designated observers who are allowed to look over the shoulders of the tabulators. As an citizen observer I was only 4-6 feet from the first row of tabulator tables. But I wasn’t close enough to actually read anything in the poll books or ballots or computer tally tapes being processed.

After a half-hour in the gallery, I was approached by a Kloppenburg representative and asked if I wanted to serve as a designated observer within the recount area. Of course I said yes so that I could see everything up close first-hand.

The first thing you should know is that votes in Waukesha County are NOT being recounted manually. Ballots are being fed into a Sequoia Optech Insight Optical Scan computer, which tallies the votes and spits out the results.

That is a big and disturbing problem in and of itself. If the computer or the vote-counting software is in any way compromised, so too is the vote tally. I don’t trust computers. Computers can be programmed to lie.

But I was bothered by more than that. Another serious concern was that it was not clear to most of the volunteer tabulators how the entire recount process actually worked. These volunteers only knew the little bit that they were told to do.

There seemed to be just a few people directing things who were privy to how things worked from start to finish, only a few who might transfer information from one processing station to the next. The entire process relies upon trusting that these few people are relaying all the information accurately. I did not see campaign-designated observers watching to see how that information was transferred. It seems to me that several people should be watching this information transfer to make sure it is done accurately.

I asked several volunteer tabulators reconciling poll books what happens next with the information they generated, to whom does it go from here, how is the information transferred, etc. They did not know.

I asked several volunteers examining piles of ballots for those with unclear markings or with a write-in candidate to explain what happens before or after with what they were doing. They did not know.

Another thing that seems really important to me is that the poll books and ballots from any given “Reporting Unit” (which might be a township or a city ward) should be completely processed from start to finish in one working day so that all the tabulators involved can vouch for any contestation or discrepancy.

This did not happen with one ward from the City of Waukesha (I believe it was Ward 1). For this ward they started reconciling the poll books late in the afternoon, and by 6:30pm they had mostly finished this, except for a few ballot numbers had not yet found in the poll books. That was it for the evening, and they would start up there tomorrow.

Now the problem I have with this is that the volunteers who worked with the poll books that evening might not return the next day. The information they had gathered was written a piece of plain old 8 1/2 x 11 sheet of lined paper and stored in a box (not sealed from what I saw) that went up to the County Clerk’s office for the evening. If those volunteers are not there the next day to confirm the numbers they generated the day before, how can we be sure that the few people who were directing the process are bringing back the same numbers?

We can’t. No matter how trustworthy these few directors might be, we should not leave ANY aspect of vote-tabulation up to trust. Every step of the process should include double and triple checks, several people watching over each other and getting everything in writing to make sure that someone isn’t making an mistake, undeliberate or deliberate. The only way to insure that the ballots and poll books from any given ward are processed thoroughly and without error from start to finish is to conduct the entire process without interruption and with all tabulators involved present so that they can testify to any contestations or discrepancies.

The Waukesha recount process is dismayingly lacking in this regard.

Then there is the issue of slowness. According to the initial election results, Dane County had more ballots cast than Waukesha. Yet Waukesha needs over two extra weeks to finish their counting. Milwaukee had almost twice the number of ballots cast as Waukesha. Why is Waukesha taking so long.

From what I could see, their highly-compartmentalized, discombobulated process directed by just a few tabulators in charge is the problem. Once people at a table working at one task are done, they just sit and wait (and wait and wait) until another task is assigned. I saw lots of tabulators sitting around and talking for extended periods. I never saw that in the two hours I watched the Dane County recount. Everyone was always on task. Volunteers knew how to transfer information from one tabulation station to the next, in contrast to Waukesha County, where volunteers were completely uniformed and thereby dependent upon the few (I could identify three) tabulator “directors” (my terminology) who shepherded data from poll book reconciliation stations to ballot examination stations to feeding ballots through the scanner stations to bringing final results to the front desk and record keeping station.

Another thing you should know is that the person who is the main “director” orchestrating what goes where, what gets done next, etc. is not retired judge Mawdsley, the person officially serving in place of recused County Clerk Kathy Nickolas. He is mainly involved in making statements at the front stage and presiding over the occasional improperly marked ballot. From what I observed, the person directing things is Barbara Hansen, a recently-retired employee of Wisconsin’s Government Accountability Board (GAB). According to the GAB website, Hansen "directed the design, implementation and ongoing operations of our Statewide Voter Registration System (SVRS)."

to be continued in a later post....