By Brad Friedman on 6/6/2012, 12:50am PT  

"It was a great demonstration of democracy, whether you agree or disagree with the outcome," Huffington Post's political reporter Howard Fineman told Ed Schultz on MSNBC late tonight, while discussing the results of the historic Wisconsin recall elections.

Fineman's comment is either accurate or it is not. Just as the results reported by the computers across the Badger State are either accurate or not. Who knows? Nobody in WI does, and that's exactly the problem.

The early Exit Poll results had reportedly predicted the race between Republican Gov. Scott Walker and Democratic Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett a virtual tie, leading media to plan for a long night tonight. A second round of Exit Polls results, however, was said to have given Walker a broader lead over Barrett. Even so, we were told, the race based on the Exit Poll data alone was still "too close to call." Those data were either accurate or they were not.

Of course, the raw, unadjusted Exit Polling data are no longer entrusted to us mere mortals. They can be seen only by members of the mainstream media, and we are simply left to trust them to report it all accurately to us or not. And when, after all, have we not been able to rely on the mainstream media to report everything accurately to us?

But never mind the Exit Polls. We've got real polls, real votes, actual ballots now to tell us who won or lost. If only we'd bother to actually count them...

Instead, those ballots --- Wisconsin votes on mostly paper ballots --- are tabulated by computer optical-scan systems like the ones in Palm Beach County, FL, which, in March of this year, had named several losing candidates to be the "winners." And like the ones in New York City which, in 2010, managed to toss out thousands of valid votes, including as many as 70% in one South Bronx precinct. And like the ones in Oakland County, Michigan, where officials found the same machines failed to count the same ballots the same way twice in 2008. And like the ones in Leon County, FL, which, in 2005, were hacked to entirely flip the results of a mock election.

In Palm Beach County, FL, the failure was discovered during a state-mandated, post-election spot check of 2% of the paper ballots. In New York City, it took nearly two years before the failures were discovered after the New York Daily News was able to examine the paper ballots via a public records request. In Oakland County, MI, election officials were lucky enough to discover the failure during pre-election testing. And in Leon County, FL, the hacker --- a computer security expert --- revealed the op-scan system flaw he exploited to flip the results of the election in an Emmy-nominated HBO documentary.

In all cases, it was only a hand examination of the paper ballots that revealed the mistabulations by the op-scanners.

In Wisconsin, no such hand-examination is done --- not without both a recount request and an order from a judge. They simply do not do manual, post-election spot checks of ballots in WI, other than for Presidential elections, and even then it is only done months after the election has concluded. So there is no way to know if the results reported by the computers reflect what the actual ballots say in Wisconsin.

The numbers used to certify their elections are based entirely on whatever the computers report the results to be. Those results, therefore, are either accurate or they are not.

So, the Exit Polls, the mainstream media's account of them, and the results themselves in Wisconsin are either accurate or not. The results tonight, according to the Associated Press with 99%of precincts reporting, show Walker winning his recall election by a full 7 points over Barrett.

Similarly, Walker's Lt. Governor Rebecca Kleefisch is said to have won her recall challenge by 6 points, and three of the four Republican state Senators up for recall reportedly won by either similar or greater margins.

The other state Senate race, between Republican Sen. Van Wanggaard and his Democratic challenger John Lehman, is still being reported as "too close to call" with just 75% of precincts in and an almost 3,000 vote margin reported at this hour (approximately 11:06pm PT).

If Lehman wins, the Democrats will take majority control of the state Senate from the Republicans. It would be the fifth time in history that a flip of a state legislative body has occuured via a recall election*. As is, it's the first time in history that a Governor has survived a recall election.

[Update 6/6/12, 11:43am pt: The Democratic challenger Lehman has now declared victory over the Republican incumbent Wanggaard with just 800 votes reportedly between them. All of the votes in that race, however, as in the Walker race, remain 100% unverified by human beings. More details on that race now here...]

County-by-county results, at least for the gubernatorial race, can be perused very generally here at Huffington Post. Unfortunately, the state of Wisconsin does not report results for the entire state at any central location, so tracking results and watching for anomalies in each of its 72 counties and thousands of municipalities is exceptionally difficult for both Election Integrity folks and even regular old citizen voters simply trying to oversee their own elections.

The networks, including both MSNBC and Fox, called the Governor's race for Walker within an hour after most of the polls had closed, with just 21% of the 100% unverified computer-reported results in, and even as voters in three counties were still said to be voting, thanks to long lines all day and night, as well as ballots and registration forms running out at a number of locations across the state.

In 2000, when the broadcast news networks initially called the Presidential race for Al Gore in Florida while many in the western part of the state were still voting, Republicans were outraged. Tonight, they seemed to have no problem at all with the surprisingly early calls, with voters still voting, as the GOP celebrated Walker's reported victory.

The day was highlighted with reportedly very high turnout; students being turned away due to residency issues (see our earlier report on early Election Day concerns for background on that and more); legal voters being turned away, illegally, for lack of Photo ID; ballots and same-day registration forms running out and other problems and concerns about computer tally systems.

The 866-OUR-VOTE Election Protection Coalition's database received calls on some 1,500 problems as of poll closing at 8pm local time. Many of the problems mentioned above can be seen in the records of those calls, and it's likely we'll have more on some of the issues that sent some voters away without being able to cast their votes at a later date.

Moreover, as we always hasten to note, problems with electronic voting systems and tabulators often do not come to light until days, weeks, and sometimes even years (see the problem noted in NYC above) later. Data need to be released and analyzed, and problem reports investigated. That can take some time.

We've received a number of, so far, anecdotal reports about op-scan problems, such as one from a journalist who was at the Rufus King International High School in north Milwaukee where, he tells The BRAD BLOG via email late tonight, he saw a number of paper ballots being rejected by the Sequoia Optech Eagle optical-scanners.

"We saw a batch get kicked back in a relatively short amount of time," he told us, requesting we not use his name or news organization's, which frowns on sharing reportage with other news outlets.

He says he was there for roughly an hour between 6:30 and 7:30pm local time. "Toward the end of our time," he writes, "my reporting partner was over by the scanner and told me she saw four or five [ballots] in a row fail to go through the machine, and the voter had to re-fill out the ballot."

"The old ballot was torn in half and put in a bag by the chief inspector," he continued. "Then I started watching, and I saw the same thing happen with two or three ballots out of the next five voters. We were told that they had either drawn the line too thick, or circled the names instead of connecting the lines, but who knows?"

Who knows, indeed. Whether it was a machine failure, due to malfeasance or malfunction, or an unlikely rash of voter errors in a row, or even whether the machine ultimately recorded the votes accurately we are likely to never know.

There are a number of reasons why the results, though they showed Walker winning surprisingly early, may have been perfectly accurate. Pundits will spend the next several days justifying the results, simply presuming that they are accurate, and likely never once bothering to examine whether they are or not.

Focus will turn to the unprecedented amount of dark money raised and spent in the election, with Walker's campaign raising at least $30.5 million (a majority of it coming from out of state) to Barrett's $3.9 million. That, of course, is just the money raised by the two campaigns themselves. It doesn't take into affect the extraordinary amount of money spent by outside groups on behalf of the candidates, largely in support of Walker by a reportedly outsized ratio of 25 to 1.

Walker also enjoyed a major advantage over the public airwaves in Wisconsin, with free radio time that may, as we first reported here last week, and as Talkers Magazine confirmed this week, constitute an FCC "equal time" violation.

John Washburn of Fair Elections Wisconsin is both a Republican supporter of Walker's in Wisconsin and a Election Integrity colleague. We spoke to him tonight and he too questions the accuracy of the results, though he averred the possibility that Walker's reported victory could be due to a number of tax levies that were removed over the past year, resulting in a smaller tax bill for many Badger State voters in April, just before they then went to the polls in June.

He asks, however, when looking at the much closer Exit Poll results versus the computer-reported tally of ballots: "Why is it that the media simply presume the election results are correct, but that the Exit Polls are not? Why is one set of unverified data more trusted than the other, especially when neither are made publicly verifiable?"

Politico's Dave Catanase suggests there's nothing surprising about the election results at all. He observes via Twitter tonight that it "Looks like Walker will win by 7. You know who told us that a week ago? Marquette," whose University Law School poll predicted a 7 point win for Walker late last week in their final pre-election survey of likely voters. Later pre-election polls indicated a tighter race.

But, of course, elections should not be about justifying results which may or may not be accurate. They should be about democratic self-governance, in which both participants and observers know the results are accurate.

Too many similarly questionable elections led us last year to call for hand-count paper ballot pilot projects to, once and for all, begin moving the life-blood of our system of self-governance --- the vote itself --- to a system in which all stakeholders can know for certain that the tally is accurate and that we truly have the self-governance we pretend to have.

That starts with the vote, and it should end with "Democracy's Gold Standard": hand-marked paper ballots, publicly hand-counted at the precincts (or wards, as they call them in Wisconsin), with all citizens, parties, and video cameras observing and with results posted right then and there before any ballots are moved anywhere. It's quick, accurate and a very difficult system to game, at least without a good chance of detection, and it would help put an end to all the questions in election after election, as to whether those announced as the "winners" have actually won.

Given the extraordinary amount of dark money and problems at the polls and questions about the results, it is very difficult to agree with Fineman's statement that today was "a great demonstration of democracy." But it certainly should have been.

We need to do better. But it seems our system of self governance via elections just keeps getting worse and worse. Or maybe it doesn't. Who knows? And that's exactly the problem.

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* CORRECTION: We originally misreported that a certified win by Democratic challenger John Lehman against the incumbent state Senator Van Wanggaard in the District 21 state Senate recall would be the first time in history that a recall election has succeeded in flipping majority control of a state legislative body. In fact, blogger Joshua Spivak, who the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel describes as a "national expert on recalls" reports that it would be the fifth time in U.S. history that such a flip has occurred. We regret the error, have corrected it in the story above, and thank Rick H. in comments below for tipping us off to it.

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