The National Landscape is Changing
Following the 2020 General Election, counties and states across the country are taking a new look at their voting systems and election processes, and many are increasingly moving to auditable and human verifiable paper ballots. Florida, New York, Maryland, Vermont and South Carolina have adopted technology that allows them to verify their election results with an independent tabulation of results. In some cases, legislation that previously required a manual process (typically a hand recount) was rewritten to allow new technology such as our VerifyNow system that quickly and accurately verifies the results of every contest and candidate, across every precinct, regardless of the voting system in use.
Whether a state automatically conducts a formal audit of results following an election or local boards of election are facing increasing calls for an additional review of official results, everyone is asking the same question: how can we build back trust in our election process and ensure confidence in our reported results?
What is a Human-Verifiable Ballot?
A human-verifiable paper ballot is one that allows the voter to view and verify that all marks were made as intended. Voters and election officials can verify marks made on a paper ballot but are not always able to verify a barcode without the use of a scanner. As counties are looking to build trust with voters, many election officials are turning to hand-filled paper ballots which can be scanned and stored securely.
What is an Audit, Exactly?
A post-election audit is an independent tabulation and comparison of an election's results that is performed after the election has concluded in order to verify the accuracy of the reported results.
Audits are primarily used to instill confidence in the electoral process. With the increase of election security awareness and security concerns in recent years, post-election audits are becoming a fundamental part of the election process for many jurisdictions. There are several types of post-election audits that can be performed based on the resources available and the scale of review that election officials are looking to conduct. Some of the most common types of audits are listed below.
Risk Limiting Audit
A risk-limiting audit, or an RLA as they’re commonly referred to, is a post-election audit that provides statistical evidence that the election outcome is accurate. The statistical calculation is based on the acceptable risk limit that has been determined by the jurisdiction, the margin of victory in the selected race, and the number of votes cast. After the number of ballots has been determined, those ballots are randomly selected and manually tabulated. Additional ballots are then selected if the initial audit size fails to produce enough evidence to support a clear outcome.
There are now several tools that can assist with an RLA, including digital software tools that can make the process easier. With inventory and ballot tracking, ballots can be easily retrieved later during the RLA process. Optionally, while scanned by the independent central count scanner, ballots can also be imprinted with a box ID and position number so that a specific ballot can be identified if the ballot ordering is compromised. Once the number of ballots to be audited has been determined, there is technology to randomly select the ballots to be audited. A random seed number can also be used so those same random ballots can be retrieved. Lastly, a cast vote record report can be used to compare results to the physical ballots if required. Clear Ballot currently supports several counties who perform RLAs following their regular elections.
Independent Third-Party Audit
Independent third-party audits are performed independently from the primary tabulation system and can provide a more detailed analysis of the election. Often referred to as the gold standard of audits, this style of results verification is becoming increasingly popular due to their speed, transparency, and confidence among voters. At Clear Ballot, we offer third-party results verification using our VerifyNow system.
Audits can be conducted by importing previously captured images or rescanning the physical ballots post-election. Most jurisdictions choose to perform a 100% analysis or review of every ballot cast during the election to perform a true side-by-side comparison of results against the primary tabulation system. We currently conduct statewide post-election third-party audits for the states of Maryland and Vermont and for counties in a number of states.
A fixed-percentage audit is a traditional form of audit that has been used in several jurisdictions throughout the country to verify election results. Fixed-percentage audits will typically have a predetermined percentage of 3 – 5% of precincts and/or contests that will require manual hand tabulation regardless of the outcome. The results from the manual tabulation are then compared to the printed results from the precinct tabulation equipment. Although fixed-percentage audits have been widely used, the time that it takes to conduct the audit can be long and unpredictable depending on the size of the jurisdiction and resources available for the review.
With software-driven solutions, fixed percentage audits can be performed independently, accurately, efficiently, and without the risk of human error present in a manual hand count. Jurisdictions will also find that they can better determine the number of staff needed for the audit. The modern audit technology found in our VerifyNow solution provides a visual representation of voter marks and helps convey confidence in the results to the public by showing how ballots were tallied rather than relying on human interpretation. Clear Ballot currently conducts fixed-percentage audits for several counties in New York.
The study of electoral forensics has become increasingly popular in the last few years, but what exactly is a “forensic audit?” Proponents of forensic audits claim that they can be used to analyze election returns from local precincts, counties, or states to find irregularities. The aim is to detect outliers or abnormalities in the usual patterns of election results, such as in voter registration, turnout, votes cast for the incumbent, blank or invalid ballots, or other anomalies in the official results. However, there isn’t always a clear agreement on what constitutes a true forensic audit and, in some cases, this is being used as a buzz word or a standard to which groups are trying to hold their state audits to and the exact specifications may vary.
So where did this fervor for forensic audits come from? The call for forensic audits picked up steam following the 2020 elections, with several states including Arizona, Georgia, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania facing calls for full forensic audits. The term is used most often in finance, using technology to dig into the details of accounts and individual actions to root out fraud. As ballots cannot be tied to individual voters by design, there is no way to use an audit to track individuals directly committing fraud via an audit without violating voters’ rights to ballot secrecy. What an audit can do is find irregularities that warrant further review or, in most cases, find that the reported results are accurate and confirm that the correct candidates won.
Sometimes, interest groups asking for a forensic audit are looking for state or county officials to review the machines themselves and look for signs of tampering with the equipment or the possibility of the machine connecting to Wi-Fi and/or Bluetooth. Since machines have strict physical security protocols that would make tampering evident immediately and machines do not regularly connect to Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, many of these steps are already taken by counties. In these cases, an independent, third-party audit of all results and confirmation that security protocols were followed is frequently used as a “forensic audit.”
What Does the Future of Election Verification Look Like?
If the past few years are any indication, election reviews will continue to become a more regular part of the election process, helping to build voter confidence with an independent verification that their vote was counted, and their voice was heard. While the style and depth of these reviews can vary greatly, the good news is that there is a type of results verification that can fit your needs, and these can be scaled up or down depending on voter turnout and the margin of victory in key contests. If your jurisdiction is looking to learn more about verifying your election results, you can read more at www.ClearBallot.com or reach out to us any time at firstname.lastname@example.org.
ABOUT CLEAR BALLOT
As the leader in election innovation, Clear Ballot has introduced a new class of tools and a modern approach to voting, enabling unprecedented speed, accuracy, and transparency that officials and the voting public have sought for decades. Clear Ballot entered the election industry with its first product in 2012, disrupting the industry with the nation’s first independent, automated audit, and four years later developed a complete voting system which is now the fastest growing voting system in the industry. Clear Ballot’s commitment to ease of use and modern technology means that its browser-based software runs on the most modern operating systems in the industry and will always be up to date.