Report: Post-election audit practices

The Election Integrity Action Team recently released its report on our observations of last year's post-election voting-machine audits. The observers were: Karen McKim, Jim Mueller, Brek Renzelman, Mary Lou Sharpee, and OmaVic McMurray. I (Karen) drafted the report, and the others commented and edited it. We provided GAB staff with a pre-release draft of the report, and they provided several helpful comments.

We observed nine audits, each of which consisted of a careful hand count of the votes in three or four races. The results of the hand counts were then compared to the machine-tabulated results that had already been certified as final. All nine audits we observed seemed to be conducted in accordance with the standards, and each resulted in an acceptable match between the hand-counted and machine-tabulated results.

GAB has not, as of this writing, released the full results of all 109 audits, which needs to be done before the process can be considered a legitimate election-integrity safeguard.

This is the cover letter we released with the report:

Of all the measures that can be undertaken to ensure election results accurately reflect the will of the people, post-election audits may be the most cost-effective. Low-tech, low-cost hand counts can determine our voting machines’ accuracy and, when adequately publicized and performed transparently with a statistically meaningful sample, can do more to support voter confidence than dozens of behind-the-scenes security measures or hard-to-understand information technology (IT) reviews of the election software.

While pre-election machine testing can deter some deliberate fraud, only post-election audits can detect unanticipated machine malfunction or electronic fraud designed to operate only on Election Day.

Post-election audits may cover the entire election process from voter registration through ballot-printing and the ballots’ chain of custody before, during, and after Election Day. However, Wisconsin law does not require such audits. This report focuses on those audit activities that determine whether our machines counted our votes accurately.

Following Wisconsin’s November 2012 elections, voting-machine audits were conducted in 109 wards randomly selected by GAB staff from the state’s 3,541 reporting units. Volunteers from the Wisconsin Grassroots Network Election Integrity Action Team observed nine of these audits. In addition, we reviewed national literature on post-election audit practices and interviewed GAB staff regarding our observations and conclusions. We are grateful for the help and gracious cooperation we received them and from all nine municipalities in which we observed, and we are looking forward to GAB’s report of the results of the audits.

In several ways, Wisconsin is better situated than many states to make the most of voting machine audits. Overall, Wisconsin’s county and municipal clerks are conscien­tious and committed to honest, fair, and transparent elections. Our statewide elections authority is nonpartisan, and dedicated citizens and volunteers are willing to assist local officials in election tasks. Most importantly, many Wisconsin jurisdictions continue to rely on voter-marked paper ballots, which provide the most authoritative and reliable audit record among all available types of voting systems. For those municipalities that rely on touch-screen voting machines (also known as direct-recording electronic systems, or DREs), state statutes forbid the use of models that do not print a voter-verifiable paper audit trail.

In addition to these strengths, some changes in state statutes or GAB guidance could provide additional protection for Wisconsin’s elections at a cost that could be justified several times over by their benefits. These are described in the following report and include:

  • State statutes should be amended to require voting-machine audits to follow every election, not just November general elections. Currently, anyone considering electronic fraud in Wisconsin’s partisan primaries or nonpartisan elections knows interference that escapes detection in simple pre-election testing and that produces results outside a recountable two-percent victory margin will almost certainly remain undetected. (See the discussion starting on page 8.)
  • Statutes or GAB interpretation of statutes should be revised to require voting-machine audits to be completed before machine-tabulated results are certified as final, not after. We find that Wisconsin residents are nearly universally astonished to learn that their common-sense expectation—that machine-tabulated results are audited before being certified as final—is not true. In addition, in the event that a voting-machine audit discovers errors or fraud, the damage done to election officials’ credibility and to the legitimacy of government will be much less if the audit is completed before, rather than after, election officials have certified the erroneous results as final. (See discussion starting on page 10.)
  • Wisconsin’s current statutes mandate post-election audit standards that are unworkable for separating immaterial findings from more troubling discrepancies that should trigger an expanded audit and investigation into the causes. We believe statutes should be amended to incorporate a workable standard. Further, to minimize the risk of divisive controversy, we believe GAB should not wait until an audit discovers deliberate interference or a serious error to adopt more detailed procedures for investigating and resolving such a discovery, but should direct its staff to develop more detailed written standards and procedures for post-audit investigation in the event that they are needed. (See discussion starting on page 11.)

Again, we wish to acknowledge and thank the county and municipal staff who welcomed us as we observed their audits, and the GAB staff who answered our questions and discussed our observations with us. We hope this report is useful to them and to all citizens and officials who cherish the self-government for which honest, fair, and accurate elections are necessary.

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