Thursday, April 7, 2011

Reactions From Waukesha County Press Conference Regarding Missing Votes In Wisconsin Supreme Court Election

Update: (4/9/2011 1:37am) More information has come to light since I first wrote this post, but the relevancy of the post's content hasn't decreased. One piece of new information that increases the relevancy of many questions is that Waukesha County Clerk Kathy Nickolaus wrote computer software for a living prior to her current position. The original post and updates follow.

Well, the Waukesha County press conference regarding the missing near 14,000 votes left more questions than it answered, and there were several instances where Waukesha County Clerk Kathy Nickolaus should have been more clear. I write computer software for a living, and I tried to take careful notes, so I should know something about the subject. First, she said such errors are "common in this process," but this error is not common or we all wouldn't be in shock.

Nickolaus wasn't very clear about how the city of Brookfield wasn't included in the original count from the county. She said the problem was "human error" because she forgot to "hit Save" when she imported the numbers from a spreadsheet containing the election results from Brookfield into an "Access database." This sounds like such a simple process, but she had trouble describing it clearly (though this isn't necessarily an issue).

I would like to see this process, because I've never seen a database that asks you to "hit Save" after importing without first showing you what you imported. Most databases, by their very nature, automatically save every change made. Adding a "save button" would add an extra level of effort for absolutely no reason if you don't look at the results. However, Nickolaus said that she didn't see the results of the import, just a message that said it was successful. So I question the system design or the explanation of its design, and demand a demonstration of the process using the two spreadsheets in question.

What do I mean "two spreadsheets?" I don't really know. I didn't catch exactly what the issue was and what it had to do with the missing votes, besides one spreadsheet from Brookfield didn't import into the database because it contained "extra columns," and the other spreadsheet with the "correct number of columns" from Brookfield which did import. Both spreadsheets contained the correct numbers from Brookfield.

The issue Nickolaus could be describing is that she didn't save the Access database after importing the Brookfield spreadsheet and before closing Access. However, we all know that if you make a change, Microsoft will always ask if you want to save when you close the program. You can't forget. She also noted that she "saved many times all night long." If this is true, how did she lose the numbers in between saves, specifically one city?

Nickolaus said the system in question was "not part of the election system," but was also used in "the Governor's election." I don't understand how this is "not part of the election system," yet is used to tally votes for elections. Why isn't there a part of the election system that securely tallies all of the votes from each city? Why do we or should we have to trust the system that Nickolaus uses for "everyday tasks" to tally votes for elections? Votes should be counted by secure election systems from the ward on up to the state, and I believe this is true in most if not all cities and counties in Wisconsin.

Nickolaus said that there were people who witnessed the tallying of votes, and a Democrat official was presented who said she verified the counts matched, but was quickly shoved off by Nickolaus before answering more questions. Did this official witness the total count process that Nickolaus said contained "human error" as well as its correction? How did the witness verify the counts match? This is a non-partisan race, so the fact that she's a Democrat doesn't settle the issue for me. I need to know more, because this "human error" that is being described as an honest mistake was kept from us for more than a day in an election everyone knows is critical.

The error was "discovered yesterday during the canvass." Nickolaus said that she didn't release the information earlier, because she needed to verify the numbers. How long did it take her to realize the error and then verify that the error indeed occurred? Why did we just learn about this today? She said the process was an "open meeting," but if that was true, why didn't we learn what she knew before this evening? It could only hurt Nickolaus's case to withhold the information after the error was confirmed, there was no good reason to keep it secret.

A good question to ask is, wouldn't the report given to the press show that Brookfield's wards didn't have vote counts if Nickolaus didn't "hit Save?" The report on the Waukesha County website has the counts broken down by ward. Did the county list numbers on their website on Wednesday?

Another issue to be concerned about, the Journal Sentinel reported in January that Nickolaus declined strong recommendations from experts to improve election security in her office. This would make it easier for anyone, including Nickolaus herself, to change the results of an election without anyone else knowing.

Update: (11:34pm) According to the Journal Sentinel, Nickolaus is well-versed in computers, enough to write her own software for tracking donations. In fact, she worked as a computer specialist for the Assembly Republicans until 2002.

Now, I'm very suspicious that she wants to control the system that processes the final count, because she likely has the knowledge to change votes without a trail and knows that this is not a secure and open way to process elections. This also makes me more suspicious of her forgetting to "hit Save." When was the last time you actually forgot to save a Microsoft document and lost your changes? Now, when do you think the person who fixes your computer forgot to save a document and lost their changes? That's about the level of expertise Nickolaus appears to have. So her story seems much less plausible at this point.

I also take back my claim that her inability to clearly describe the error is a non-issue. Nickolaus honestly didn't sound like someone with significant computer knowledge and experience. She had a lot of time to think about how she would explain the error. And now that I know she has expertise in computers, she should have been able to clearly explain what exactly happened by the time the press conference occurred. The lack of clear explanation adds more suspicion.

Update: (4/8/2011 2:01pm) I've been informed that every version of Microsoft Access auto-saves (showing how little I use Microsoft products), thanks to ColdFusion04 for testing this fact. That means, unless an extra save step was added to the system, Nickolaus never has to "hit Save," and every time a spreadsheet is imported, its numbers are automatically saved to the database. If an extra save step was added, it serves no purpose if Nickolaus doesn't look at them to make sure each import worked correctly.

Also, Nickolaus said she "saved many times all night long." I can't explain how changes can be lost in between saves. Unless she opened and then closed Access every time she imported a spreadsheet, trying to make sure that she saved each time before closing. This would be a dangerous and highly inefficient way to work, especially during the rush of election night, because not only could she very easily lose votes, it could take several minutes just to open and close the database each time she adds more votes. If this is what she's doing, I don't know why on Earth an informed individual like herself wouldn't verify the results before sending them to anyone.

So, either the database auto-saves and whether Nickolaus "hit Save" is irrelevant, or the system is intentionally designed to be cumbersome for no additional benefit and, contrary to Nickolaus's expertise, she uses the system dangerously and inefficiently. Either way, I believe Wisconsin deserves an open demonstration of this system and the process involved.

Update: (4/9/2011 4:59pm) If you want to have your voice heard regarding the issues with the Waukesha County election system and the delayed explanation we were given for the "human error," the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board has a complaint form here: The election official in this case is Waukesha County Clerk Kathy Nickolaus.


  1. Does anyone recognize a scam when they see it? This is how George Bush won Ohio (from a control spot for vote-reporting in Memphis, involving an employee who was later killed after he came clean about the manipulations.) The votes were either withheld or were manufactured. If withheld they are suspect. If manufactured, there should be a new election.

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  3. She was using a software application that uses access for the data storage and reporting. The HMI probably has a stored procedure to import the data, possibly with the Begin Transaction statement, which then allows the user to SAVE the imported data, or do a roll back (cancel). If she hit the wrong button, accidentally closed the app, did not click save before starting the Report app...any number of situations could have happened. Unless you have the actual applications and database to examine, you're just blowing smoke!

  4. moosed: Thank you for your comments. I explained that as a possibility, though not in as much technical depth. The issue is, if Nickolaus doesn't look at the results of the import, what's the pointing of adding the additional step of hitting save? It's also a very dangerous way to handle election results, the database should automatically save with the option of rolling back. I'm not blowing smoke, because I don't have the actual software application, I don't know how it works. I'm just asking questions that I believe deserve an answer.