Hand counters in Brown County Wisconsin asked questions while counting the votes.

What Did the Wisconsin Recount Teach Us?

Computer scientists and election reform advocates trust hand counts, but election administrators do not.

Election experts and scientists keep telling us that we need to count on paper because we can always go back and examine those paper ballots. J. Alex Halderman, a professor of computer science at the University of Michigan summed up one of the most important take-aways from the recount, “ ‘Also shocking is how unlikely states are to look at any of the paper, even in a surprising and close election like this,’ Halderman said.”

What I show in the third part of my video series on the recount is the real divide between election administrators and the scientific community on this issue.

Six well-known computer scientists and statisticians submitted affidavits in the court hearing preceding the recount — and all six supported a full hand count. But the county clerks I interviewed in Wisconsin made it clear that they do not trust people counting by hand, and they don’t want to engage in it on a regular basis.

I encourage you to take 5 minutes to actually watch the video — you will get a sense of how complicated it is to really count ballots by hand. First, there are multiple kinds of ballots — there are election day ballots, absentee ballots, provisional ballots and something that is called “reconstructed ballots” which are the ballots that get damaged by the machine and have to be “remade.” Not only do all the votes have to be counted, but the ballots themselves have to be counted and reconciled against the poll books. The poll work paperwork is done at the end of the night by people who may have worked a 12 or even 17 hour day — and it is not always as straight-forward as you would hope.

The quality of the recount varied greatly from county to county. In Brown County, where I spent the most time, they only counted 2% of the votes by hand, but I was impressed by the diligence of the hand-counters. They double and triple counted the ballots and when there were discrepancies — they took the time to figure out why and resolve the issue to their satisfaction. This required a willingness to say publicly at the table — “This isn’t adding up, we have to look at it again.” That confidence to question the count is what is needed if the recount is going to be meaningful. You will get the best sense of that from Part one of the series.

I believe it is that part of the hand counting that makes the clerks so uncomfortable. They don’t want to look at the possibility that the votes aren’t adding up — because if that is the case, it will reflect poorly on them. From their perspective, it’s better to put the ballots quickly through the machines, and then there are no questions. Part two of the series shows the Racine County clerks doing just that — refusing to answer legitimate questions raised by the count.

But answering those questions is what gives us the confidence that our election results are accurate. Let’s look at the ballots, count them by hand and ask the question, “Are they are adding up?” Voters who want to can participate in that process, or witness the count, and we can all come away knowing that — no matter what candidate we supported — we certified the correct winner.

Adding redundancy to the counting will increase the chances that the outcome is correct. Karen McKim from Wisconsin Election Integrity suggests using optical scans followed by a hand count, and that protocol is in use in Columbia County New York.

Our video series will have one final part examining the transparency, fairness and cost of the recount and summarizing our findings. It will be online at alternet.org.


Lulu Friesdat is an Edward R. Murrow award-winning journalist and documentary filmmaker. She received a Best Documentary award for her first feature-length documentary (producer/director) Holler Back — [not] Voting in an American Town, a film that explores systemic issues in our elections that discourage voter participation. Clips are available for viewing here. Her network news experience includes editing assignments for CBS Evening News, Nightline, Sunday Morning, The Today Show, and Good Morning America. She produced and edited profiles of Democratic candidates for MSNBC, and has done long-format documentary work with NBC News and CNBC. She was on the editing team of Gideon’s Army, an Emmy-nominated documentary that follows the personal stories of public defenders in the Deep South. Gideon’s Army received the U.S. Documentary Editing Award at the Sundance Film Festival and the Ridenhour Prize, fostering the spirit of courage and truth. Other film credits include Are We Not Men — The DEVO documentary, Joe Papp in 5 Acts (PBS/American Masters) and Slamnation by five-time Emmy winner Paul Devlin. Follow her on twitter @LuluFriesdat.