The What, Why and How of Election Audits
Prior to this year, election audits have rarely made headlines—or even the subject lines of the many research requests NCSL’s elections team receives each month. We’ve said it before, but we’ll say it again: This year is different.
With researchers and journalists reporting that voters in some jurisdictions distrust the election process, many lawmakers are wondering, “How can we increase confidence in elections?” There’s no easy answer to that question, so some legislators are asking a variation, “Could audits increase confidence in elections?” In 2021 alone, 75 bills have been introduced relating to audits, an increase from 61 in 2019 and just 23 in 2017. Most recently, the Department of Justice (DOJ) released guidance on audits and the preservation of election records.
With audits in the news and our inboxes, NCSL organized a webinar, What is an Election Audit?, with two experts: Matt Masterson and Jennifer Morrell. Masterson is a past Republican member of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, former senior cybersecurity advisor at the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency and current fellow at the Stanford Internet Observatory. Morrell is a former local election official, partner at the Elections Group and the nation’s foremost expert on verifying election results.
What we learned: Audits, standard practice in accounting and many governmental processes, are also becoming more and more common in elections. According to Masterson, audits are “an area of election administration that we’ve seen grow at rapid rates, perhaps faster than any other area of election administration.”
But what—exactly—is an election audit? Postelection audits, those that verify election results and ensure voting tabulation machines functioned correctly, dominate the election audit landscape. We’ll focus on them below, but it’s worth stressing that “election audit” is a general term for a whole family of audits, rather than one specific process. As Morrell points out, “There are all sorts of areas in election administration—from the time a voter registers until we seal those ballots up for retention—where we have the opportunity to conduct a test or audit to verify that the work was done correctly.”
A Non-Comprehensive Overview of Election Audits
“Forensic audits” have gotten a lot of attention this year, but in the elections world, that’s a new term that doesn’t yet have a widespread definition.
But there is more than one kind of election audit. Postelection tabulation audits are the most prevalent (see the following section) and just about the only audits called for by statute. But audits can be performed on nearly every part of an election system, says Morrell, including voter registration databases, voter district and precinct assignments, security procedures (both physical and cyber), voting equipment, ballot reconciliation and chain of custody, and more. Audits can be further defined based on what aspect of the election is being evaluated and the criteria for that evaluation.
Some of these audits may be new to you; a few were to us:
Legal audits assess whether an election was in legal compliance with all applicable laws and whether all laws were implemented as intended. This might also be considered a system audit.
Access audits look at whether an election complied state and federal laws, including the Americans with Disabilities Act, as well as best practices to ensure the enfranchisement of all qualified voters. A related audit is a ballot design audit, which evaluates the usability of ballots for all voters, including those with physical or cognitive disabilities and those with little civic or electoral literacy. (See Whitney Quesenbery’s 2018 presentation on auditing ballot design here.)
Process audits evaluate whether a particular operation—such as the procedure for checking in voters at a polling place—conformed to predetermined standards, including whether the process was efficient and whether the instructions for the process were effective.
Product (or equipment) audits examine whether software or other equipment conforms to requirements and performance standards. More specifically, a configuration audit ensures that voting equipment meets the state or federal certified configuration standards.
Find more definitions and details in the U.S. Election Assistance Commission’s Glossary of Terms, Morrell’s essay in Election Auditing: Key Issues and Perspectives published by the MIT Election Data + Science Lab and CalTech/MIT Voting Technology Project and NCSL’s “What is an Election Audit?” webinar.
Trending: Postelection Audits
Postelection audits—or more precisely, postelection tabulation audits—verify the accuracy of an election’s vote tally. These are the audits you’ve heard of, either because 43 states provide for some type of postelection audit or because they’ve been in the news since the November 2020 election.
But wait—there’s more than one kind of postelection tabulation audit. Most states use traditional postelection audits where they examine a fixed percentage of voting districts or voting machines and compare the paper record to the results produced by the voting system.
Twelve states, however, have implemented, piloted or provided options for a different type of postelection tabulation audit, a risk-limiting audit (RLA). RLAs don’t rely on a fixed percentage to provide confidence in the election result; instead, Morrells says, “[RLAs] take a statistically significant sample and ensure that if there were errors, there weren’t enough that they would change the outcome.” If the margin of victory was narrow or if discrepancies are found, the audit escalates, and more paper ballots are reviewed until either the required level of confidence has been met or a full hand recount has been performed.
Other states use hybrid postelection audits, where aspects of both a traditional and a risk-limiting audit have been combined. Arizona’s statute, for example, requires election officials to examine ballots from a fixed 2% of the precincts or vote centers, but if the review does not meet the state audit board’s designated margin for error, the audit is designed to escalate—like an RLA.
General Audit Policy Considerations
As election audits become more widespread—in both state laws and national headlines—lawmakers might keep the following questions in mind when setting and refining election audit policy.
Which audit processes are on your books now? “Audits aren’t something that you can just make up on the fly,” Masterson says. Knowing before an election which audit processes are in place and how they work helps all parties remain on the same page. “Understanding how audits will take place,” he continues, “is a really important part of confidence, because then everyone understands the rules as you head into the election process.”
Where are audit procedures outlined? Published procedures ensure the audit is repeatable and transparent. Most states define audit processes in statute, including how ballots are counted, the size of batches, the specific process, etc. Some states may choose to leave the details to administrative rule-making, though Morrell cautions that audits are “an opportunity to be a little more prescriptive than we have in the past because elections have been designated as critical infrastructure.”
When will the audit take place or be completed? Particularly for postelection tabulation audits, conducting the audit prior to the canvass or certification means discrepancies can be resolved before certifying the election results. Other audits may serve their purposes just as well after certification.
Who runs the audit? Audits may be run by election officials, by state audit or program evaluation offices, or by others. National standards exist for certified auditors, including ethical guidelines, and some states—such as New Mexico—chose to employ professional auditors for election audits.
Who can observe the audit? Most states allow the public to observe election audits, and some may even require members of political parties to be present or use bipartisan teams to review ballots. Observers can increase transparency and security, too.
How does the audit work in practice? What improvements to current processes are needed? Ask election officials how the audit process works (many will be thrilled to demonstrate a mock audit), as well as what improvements or changes they desire.
What resources are needed to implement an election audit? Do all jurisdictions have what they need? From a local perspective, audit requirements may look like an unfunded mandate, so funding often tops the list of needs. Money isn’t the only resource that local election officials need, however. Especially for postelection audits, local election offices may need more space and more staff. Professionalization is key too and partnering local election officials with experienced auditors and creating opportunities for cross-county or cross-state collaboration can help build experience and expertise.
Postelection Tabulation Audit Considerations
What kind of postelection tabulation audit should be used—traditional or risk-limiting? There are two main differences between RLAs and traditional audits. First, in an RLA, all ballots have an equal chance of being selected; in a traditional audit only ballots in the selected precincts are audited. Second, RLAs are designed to escalate if discrepancies are found. Most traditional audits conclude after the required percentage of ballots have been reviewed, regardless of discrepancies.
Would a risk-limiting audit pilot program be a good first step? A number of states—including Michigan, Nevada and, most recently, Texas—have piloted RLAs. A pilot program allows states to better understand whether an RLA will work with the vote tabulation equipment, determine the cost and required workload and more.
Will recount laws still be necessary? Risk-limiting audits and recounts aren’t the same thing, but since RLAs can escalate to a full (often hand) recount, they may make other recount laws or provisions unnecessary or inefficient. “Recounts are costly, they’re time-consuming,” Morrell says. Who knows? States may find that with a robust RLA process, recounts become a thing of the past.
Who can access the paper ballots? Monitoring who has access to paper ballots throughout the audit process is a significant security priority. In addition to locks, cameras and authentication methods, many states require ballots to be viewed and handled only by bipartisan teams. Well-documented ballot accounting practices can further safeguard the integrity of the ballots. “You build your layers of security just like you would in the cyber world,” Masterson says, “but then you also go back to the ballot accounting every single time you handle those ballots.” The DOJ's recent guidance also gives more clarity on federal law and the requirements that jurisdictions have for maintaining the security of election records, paper or otherwise.
Audits—postelection audits, in particular—may help increase trust in elections, but voters must also have confidence in the audit. Expanding transparency around audits may help, and that could mean implementing citizen audit boards, increasing public oversight of auditing processes, requiring representatives from each political party to serve as observers during the audit and/or inviting the media and policymakers to watch a mock audit.
As legislators ask whether audits increase trust in elections, we ask legislators: “How can we help?”
From the Chair
This month we spoke with Pennsylvania Representative Seth Grove (R), who has represented District 196, located in southcentral Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna Valley, since 2009.
Why were you selected to chair the State Government committee? What do you like about the role?
Maybe because I’m a glutton for punishment! Between redistricting and election issues, we have some monumental tasks to address. I enjoy hard work and doing what it takes to identify and solve problems—that’s why I got slated to head up the State Government committee this session.
What have your election priorities been for the 2021 session?
Starting off, I wanted to make sure we understood a) what our election law actually says and b) how our elections are currently administered. That allowed us to determine the facts of our elections and see how we can improve upon what we do—whether through law or administration—to help counties run elections.
So, we held 10 extensive hearings and we took apart each piece of an election—from voter registration to postelection audits. Each piece is complex. If you want to talk about voter registration, you have to talk about federal requirements and how they affect your state, state laws on list maintenance, voter eligibility and the relationship between the state and individual counties.
The hearings were eye-opening, and the members on the committee learned a lot. The general public who watched the public hearings learned a lot too.
Can you tell me about some of the specific legislation the committee worked on?
The largest update to our election laws since 1937 was to add mail-in voting [no-excuse absentee voting] in 2019. So this year we made a small [laughter] technical update of about 150 pages to the election code that dealt with a lot of issues. We focused on timeline changes requested by our counties to better handle mail-in ballots, which we implemented in 2020. The updates made sure the counties had just one task to do before moving on to the next one so they wouldn’t be overwhelmed.
We also needed to expand access, so we looked what other states—both red and blue—were doing to increase access and ensure security. We worked with disability groups to help disabled people vote and we discovered that most of our state election websites aren’t accessible, so we built that into the update and required the use of a .gov website for all elections information so people can know it’s trustworthy.
We added early in-person at vote centers to fill the gap between mail voting and Election Day voting. We mandated electronic poll books to address long lines. The House GOP caucus wanted voter ID, so we built that in and created a voter registration card with a signature and scannable identification code—that can reduce time in line too. We talked with experts about how to do voter ID in a fair way, and so we also added an affidavit option for those without a valid ID.
We built in a signature verification process. We had been using signatures from when people registered to vote at 18, but signatures change. Other states use signature capture technology, and the bill adds that, as well as a signature cure process.
We also wanted to make sure we have a fully auditable election system, so we envisioned the creation of the Bureau of Election Audits within our general audit office. We added a batch risk-limiting audit, performance audits at least once every five years, so many different audits! We also delayed certification a week, gave an extra week for audits and an extra week for certification and required any issues discovered by the audit to be fixed before certification.
We listened to counties’ financial needs and added funds for one-time expenses (like electronic poll books) and established a cost-sharing program for the future.
It was an overhaul—to me, the bill was a huge modernization, really a professionalization of what an election should be.
What aspect of Pennsylvania’s elections makes you the proudest?
I’m really impressed at the ability of election directors to work through an antiquated law from 1937 to get elections done. We’re also very good at election machine security; when I look at what we do with logic and accuracy testing compared to other states, we’re really in the top percentage.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What’s happening with ranked choice voting in 2021?
Ranked choice voting (RCV)—when voters rank all the candidates for a given office in order of preference and candidates must win with a majority, rather than a plurality—has received increasing attention as an alternative to first-past-the-post or plurality voting.
This year alone, four pro-RCV bills have passed out of 79 introductions relating to RCV and other alternative voting methods. Colorado and Utah both enacted bills relating to using RCV in local elections. As part of Georgia’s omnibus elections bill, the Peach State made provisions for military and overseas voters to use RCV in the state’s primary runoff elections. And Maine, the first state to make widespread use of RCV, passed a housekeeping bill clarifying the procedures for RCV in presidential primaries and general elections.
New NCSL Resources
Voting for All Americans: Native Americans examines the particular challenges Native Americans may face in voting, as well as the potential effects of various policy choices and relevant recent legislative action. What 2020’s Historic Voter Turnout Means for the Future, an article in State Legislatures News, considers the increase in early in-person and absentee voting—it might be easy to attribute this enormous change to the pandemic, but there’s more to the story. Webpages with updates include Provisional Ballots, Voting Equipment and Online Voter Registration.
Report on America’s Institutions and Civic Culture
In 2019, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences convened a commission to conduct listening sessions about people’s diverse civic experiences. The bipartisan commission released its findings in a report, Our Common Purpose: Reinventing American Democracy for the 21st Century, which outlines 31 ambitious recommendations—including mandatory electoral participation—for a more resilient democracy by 2026.
Republican Report on Election Integrity
In April, the Republican State Leadership Committee's Commission on Election Integrity produced a report, Best Practices for Making it Easier to Vote and Harder to Cheat, that examines three main areas of election administration and provides best practices for election integrity. The report also includes a compendium of state laws on 16 election topics, and the commission is co-chaired by Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill and Michigan Senator Ruth Johnson.
National Report on Voters with Disabilities
The U.S. Government Accountability Office released a report examining state and local actions to increase the accessibility of early voting for people with disabilities. Although the report highlights several steps toward increasing accessibility, it also notes that challenges persist—including physical obstacles, difficulty marking paper ballots and more.
Disability and Voter Turnout in the 2020 Elections
Rutgers University and the U.S. Election Assistance Commission produced a fact sheet on disability and voter turnout in the 2020 elections. Findings include a surge in turnout among voters with disabilities and a fall in the turnout gap between voters with and without disabilities—the gap decreased from 6.3 percentage points in 2016 to 5.7 points in 2020.
Military and Overseas Voters
In July, The Council of State Governments’ Overseas Voting Initiative released a paper on electronic ballot return for military and overseas voters. The paper provides recommendations to ensure that ballot return methods successfully balance security and accessibility, including conducting a comparative risk analysis of all ballot return methods, electronic and non-electronic.
Monthly Dose of Cybersecurity
Washington, D.C.—The U.S. Election Assistance Commission released a report outlining best practices for managing the chain of custody of both in-person and absentee ballots. The EAC’s recommendations include witness signatures on chain of custody forms and not sharing user login credentials on voting equipment.
Ontario, Canada—The Electoral Integrity Project, in partnership with the Alliance for Securing Democracy and the OSET Foundation, released a report addressing the security of electronic poll books in the U.S. and internationally. The report provides guidance on cybersecurity best practices, poll worker training and identifying potential vulnerabilities.
Clerks Working to Combat Disinformation
The Colorado County Clerks Association made suggestions to the secretary of state’s Bipartisan Advisory Committee on how to change the state’s election system to combat disinformation. Recommendations include allowing voters to view images of ballots (without revealing how anyone voted) and regular audits of voter registration rolls.
New Role for an NCSL Friend
Kristin Sullivan, a former legislative staffer and member of NCSL’s election staff network, is now the research director for the Center for Election Innovation and Research. We wish her all the best in the new job!
Happy Birthday to the 26th Amendment!
Last month, the 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution celebrated its 50th birthday. The amendment lowered the voting age to 18. Congress passed the amendment on March 23, and it was ratified on July 1, 1971.
From the NCSL Elections Team
Our team has been busy preparing for the “trek” to NCSL Base Camp, and we hope you’ll join us this week at any (or all) of these exciting online sessions:
- Get Ready, Get Set – Redistrict! Tuesday, Aug. 3 | 12:15 PM-1:15 PM ET
- Election Perfection: You Be the Judge, Thursday, Aug. 5 | 10:45 AM-11:45 AM ET
- Redistricting Maps: You Say Fair, I Say Foul, Thursday, Aug. 5 | 12:00 PM-1:00 PM ET
- What’s Up with the Census? Thursday, Aug. 5 | 2:30 PM-3:30 PM ET
Registration is just $59 for NCSL membersAll sessions will be broadcast live, but attendees can also view the recordings for 30 days. And after Base Camp, we’ll be setting our sights on the Legislative Summit in Tampa, Fla., Nov. 3-5.
As always, we'd love to hear from you.
—Mandy Zoch, Wendy Underhill and Christi Zamarripa