Madison tests, secures voting machines as election nears

MADISON, Wis. — Eight Madison employees spent their Saturday testing 97 DS200 voting machines, a process that was open to the public on East Washington Avenue. The process is designed to ensure that all machines are prepared to accurately tabulate the votes on Election Day, including absentee, early in-person and Election Day ballots.

A process that can take anywhere from 15 to 45 minutes depending on how many races clerks have to check, it starts with making sure the machines are “zeroed” out–or have no ballots currently in its count. Starting with a blank slate, clerks test every race on each machine–a number that can vary, depending on which (and how many) wards the machine will serve. In total, Madison will have 95 polling places, with a few receiving more than one tabulator depending on expected traffic at the site.

Additionally, they check common voting issues like double-marked races or empty ballots to ensure the machine alerts voters there’s an error on their ballot. At that point, voters would have a choice to submit their ballot anyway or ask an election official to help them retrieve and discard the old ballot and fill out a new one.

“We just want to make sure we’re testing every possibility,” Nikki Perez said, a certified municipal clerk with the city of Madison. “If a voter feeds their ballot in and it’s blank, we want to alert them because we’re not sure if that was their intention or not.”

Errors like marking two bubbles for a single race won’t discount the entire ballot, but it would cancel out a voter’s selection for the race where they made an error. During the testing process, Perez said they’re feeding between 18 and 30 ballots through a machine to check various races and scenarios.

“As I’m feeding these through, the public count populates up top so we know how many ballots have been fed through the tabulator,” Perez noted. “That’s really helpful on Election Day as well.”

Once that’s done and employees zero the machine’s count back out, the machines are secured with tamper-evident seals marked with unique serial numbers. They’re kept at the facility under lock and video surveillance, and once they leave the facility on Election Day to be taken to their polling sites, they never leave the presence of an election official. Additionally, the seals are checked on Election Day for tampering.

“We have locks and alarms on this facility, it’s also monitored by video cameras,” Perez explained. “When it’s being transported, it’s also in our possession. Then we lock it in a secure room at the polling place.”

There’s multiple back-up options if election officials were concerned about a counting error on a machine, Perez noted. Memory sticks inside the machines take a picture of every ballot fed through its slots, so both the ballots themselves could be hand counted as well as the scanned pictures reviewed.

Saturday morning, the most recent reports from the Wisconsin Election Commission showed about 1.3 million absentee ballots returned. Of those, more than a quarter million votes were cast during early in-person voting so far, which started on October 20 and runs through the 31st. In total, about 44% of 2016’s general election statewide turnout has already voted in the presidential election this November.