The Waukesha Issue

As I have been reading about the election in Wisconsin, I am reminded of a couple of things that Mike Alvarez and I have written — as well as a paper I have now with Charles Stewart — about elections.

First, elections are a process. There are certain steps that have to be followed — by voters, poll workers, election officials. These steps constitute a set of standard operating procedures (SOPs) and SOPs are what keep complex organizations engaged in complex activities from going awry. An aircraft carrier functions without incident because everyone on the ship follows SOPs for their job; together these SOPs integrate and a plane can launch without anyone getting killed.  Elections too have standard operating procedures.

Second, the events in Waukesha illustrate the problem I have with the narrowness of how many people view election audits.  There is a very large focus on audits as events that occur for checking vote counts and the best statistical method for doing the count.  However, the Waukesha problem illustrates that an audit is about ensuring that a PROCESS works, not that a bunch of numbers add up.

For example, audits are about having detailed and appropriate SOPs and training election workers on how to implement these SOPs.  As Atul Gawande would note, you have to have and then follow the checklist.  The checklist for Waukesha County should have included an array of activities, including counting and reporting the ballots.  The checklist should also have included having at least two people doing most of the activities on election night — the two person rule is auditing 101.

(Mike Alvarez, Lonna Atkeson, and I have an edited book on election audits coming out next year and this is one thing we emphasize).

Third, voters are sensitive to problems that occur in the voting process.  When voters don’t think that their votes will be counted correctly, there is some evidence that these events will affect a voter’s likelihood of voting in the next election.   Moreover, part of the issue with voter confidence comes when unexpected events occur.  When election results surprise, it can affect voter confidence.  In in person voting, when problems happen at the polls, voter confidence and voter’s attitudes about election officials plummet.

So the problem in Waukesha County is this — when their election officials:

  1. don’t bother to have a set of standard operating procedures and
  2. don’t bother to have a checklist, and
  3. then do not follow the items that should have been on the checklist, and
  4. ignore the most basic rules of auditing (the 2-person rule and having a checklist),
  5. they should not be surprised when all hell breaks loose and people criticize them because, well, they deserve it.