“Every aviator knows that if mechanics are inaccurate, aircraft crash,” Charles Lindbergh said.
This might be a corollary: If elections are inaccurate, democracy crashes.
Fortunately, just as airplane mechanics have procedures and checklists, so do election officials. “We can’t afford to fail on Election Day because we can’t come back on Wednesday,” says J.C. Love III, the probate judge and chief election official in Montgomery County, Ala.
Yet as any election official will acknowledge, elections can always be improved. Legislators can help by continuing to make policy and procedural choices that favor accuracy. The key word there is “choices,” plural. Election accuracy is the outcome of choices made beginning well before Election Day and running through vote certification, all aimed at minimizing errors and maximizing confidence, transparency and, well, accuracy.
Here are 12 common (though not universal) steps to take to maintain and increase election accuracy—with negligible partisan impact.
1 — Ensure Precise Voter Assignment
Election officials assign new voters to precincts based on where they live. This assignment determines which districts voters are in (from congressional and legislative districts right down to the much smaller school board and special districts), and that determines which races voters see on their ballots. “(Voter assignment is) a thankless task, but it’s got to be perfect,” says Clay Helms, Alabama’s state election director. “It’s a problem when a state senator goes to the polls and can’t vote for themselves because of an error in assignment!”
Right after redistricting, when district boundaries change, voter assignment is harder than ever. Experts say that as many as 12% of voters may be assigned inaccurately, and occasionally those errors affect election results. Using geographic information systems can take some of the labor out of the process and increase accuracy. North Carolina, for example, conducts GIS “audits” of its voter rolls so counties can make fixes if needed.
2 — Keep Voter Registration Lists Current
Current, clean voter rolls are the foundation of a strong election, and each state has a well-defined process for removing voter records from its registration database, in accordance with federal and state laws. States can check voter registration lists against other in-state data sources (prison records, death records, DMV records) and national sources (national change of address records, secure interstate data exchanges). If there’s doubt about the rolls, “you can eyeball the removals based on your state’s births, deaths and moves,” says Charles Stewart III, director of the Election Data and Science Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Removals should be within range” for these never-static lists. In the last 18 months, 19 states have enacted laws to improve their voter list maintenance processes.
3 — Minimize Errors in Voter Data
Voter data accuracy improves when citizens enter their own information through electronic processes, such as an online voter registration portal or an electronic data exchange between the bureau of motor vehicles and the state’s election office. Human errors that are common when deciphering or keying in handwritten information decline. Maine is the latest state to adopt an online voter registration system; 41 other states and Washington, D.C., have already done so.
4 — Provide Correct Voting Information
Voters need to know where they can vote, when the polls close, how to request an absentee ballot and who to call if they have questions. Lots of nongovernmental organizations aim to provide the what, where and how for elections—but the best (and most accurate) sources are state or local election officials. Providing that information might be easier for midsize or larger jurisdictions, which may have communications directors. Small jurisdictions might operate with only a single part-time employee—and no website at all. Resource allocation is the issue, and states can sometimes lend a hand.
5 — Train Poll Workers (and Perhaps Poll Watchers)
Poll workers are essential to an efficient election—they greet voters, check them in, verify identification if required, answer questions about voting machines and more. But poll workers need effective training to accurately guide voters through the election process. Most states require poll workers to complete training, though the length, format and depth may vary by state or even local jurisdiction. In some states, the chief election official may establish a uniform curriculum; in others, local election officials may develop training tailored to their operations and communities. States may also consider training requirements for poll watchers or challengers, so they understand both the election process and their observational role within it.
6 — Certify and Protect Voting Technology
States set certification standards for voting technology but almost all adhere in some way to the Voluntary Voting System Guidelines produced by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. Voting system manufacturers also follow these guidelines and ensure that commission- certified private testing labs review every inch of code and assess the equipment itself for wear, tear and occasional abuse. State laws may have additional requirements, such as certifying only equipment that uses paper ballots, and making tampering with equipment and ballots a crime.
7 — Conduct Logic and Accuracy Testing
Before an election takes place, sample ballot sets are run through every tabulation device to ensure that all machines are counting accurately. Often, testing is repeated after the polls close to guarantee that the machines are still giving good results. These events are open to the public on the theory that “show me” is better than “trust me.”
8 — Know Where All Ballots Are
Do your election officials always know where their ballots are? Does your state have strong “chain of custody” laws and procedures? It’s likely that at every step in the process—from the minute blank ballots are received from the printer to the time that all ballots are stored for 22 months, per federal law—they are only touched by bipartisan teams who log their names and date every time any action takes place. Election officials are by nature and necessity detailed record-keepers.
9 — Maintain Strong Cybersecurity Protocols
“Because of the geopolitical environment in 2022, we’re in a greater threat environment than ever,” says Lindsey Forson, director of cybersecurity programs for the National Association of Secretaries of State. Some cyberattacks are meant to sow doubt by providing false information or fake election results on websites that look official but are not, or by temporarily shutting down an office through a denial-of-service or ransomware attack. While election results themselves are not an easy target (and paper ballots provide a backup in worst-case scenarios), attacks on anything election-related can undermine confidence. “Everything is stacked in the bad actors’ favor; think of this as your smallest districts are fighting against Russia,” says Kim Wyman, former Republican secretary of state in Washington and current senior election security advisor at the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency.
10 — Share Accurate, Complete Results
The push from the media, candidates and the public to get election results posted is understandable, but the results aren’t final until all the ballots have been canvassed and all the certification requirements have been met— sometimes weeks after Election Day. “We want results fast, but we also want them to be accurate,” says Blake Evans, the Georgia state election director. In fact, Evans says, accuracy comes first. Unofficial results, like those shared by The Associated Press, can have value— but they can be confusing without context, such as how many ballots are outstanding. Georgia, therefore, requires counties to report to the state office both unofficial results and the number of ballots yet to be counted.
11 — Use Compliance Reviews
Compliance reviews (also known as procedural audits) are common, even when not mandated. Think Santa Claus: Did someone make procedural lists, and were they all checked twice? There’s nothing like a compliance review to encourage accuracy at every step of the way—and to catch the rare times when a box of ballots is inadvertently misplaced.
12 — Audit Results
The vote count itself can be audited, too. Two-thirds of the states have a statutory requirement for “postelection tabulation audits,” in which a sample of ballots is audited after each election. The processes might differ, but the goal is the same: to provide confidence that the vote tally accurately determined the winner. This is a hot legislative topic, with four states enacting some form of audit since January 2021.
A boring election (from the administrative perspective) is a good one, just like a boring flight is the best kind. How to maximize boring? By focusing ahead of time on accuracy, every step of the way.
Wendy Underhill directs NCSL’s Elections and Redistricting Program.