NCSL’s The Canvass

Post Election Audits: What's Next?

Scrabble pieces that spell "audit."

Computers are a constant in our lives and the realm of elections is no different. However, as has been demonstrated time and time again, absolute trust in computers is misplaced. Again, the realm of elections is no different. Case in point: evidence of “bad actors” looking to interfere with U.S. elections by probing state data and election systems.

What can be done about new threats—and perceptions of threats—to our elections systems? States can double-check by running a post-election audit. In short, a post-election audit looks at a sample of cast ballots and compares them to the electronic count.

“You get confidence from evidence,” says Neal McBurnett, an independent election integrity consultant based in Colorado. Post-election audits, specifically the newer version called risk-limiting audits, are one part of what he terms “evidence-based elections.” Evidence-based elections provide convincing and supporting evidence that the reported election outcomes do in fact reflect the true vote.

While evidence-based elections include a variety of measures meant to deter, detect and correct any election missteps, post-election audits get most of the credit. Post-election audits get most of the legislation, too. So far, 2018 has seen 20 bills introduced in 11 states  on the topic of post-election audits.

What Is a Post-Election Audit, Anyway?

By NCSL’s count, 32 states and the District of Columbia require post-election audits, with another three states using post-elections audits under certain circumstances. Post-election audits fall into two main categories: traditional and risk-limiting.

Traditional post-election audits are the most popular form, and the simplest. These require that a fixed percent of ballots, voting districts, or voting machines be audited. Generally, these are chosen at random. Arizona requires that 2 percent of precincts or two precincts in a county, whichever is greater, be selected. Pennsylvania requires that 2 percent of votes cast or 2,000 ballots (whichever is less) be audited. Regardless of any circumstances surrounding the election, the same percent pertains in a traditional post-election audit.

Risk-limiting audits take the same idea—reviewing a sample of ballots—but use statistics to determine the number of ballots to be reviewed based on how close the race was. If the margin of victory is close, a risk-limiting audit would require more ballots to be counted. If the race is not close, fewer ballots would need to be audited. This technique creates a high confidence that a full recount would confirm the original results. After the 2017 general election, Colorado successfully conducted its first risk-limiting audit, garnering lots of press.

Regardless of which type of audit is used, hand counting the audited ballots is often the method of choice. And yet, how bad are humans at counting? We’ve all been there. You’re at a meeting and ask, “How many people want to grab lunch?” You count 22 raised hands, your neighbor counts 24, and then there is that person who changes their mind at the last minute. Time to count again. Did you match this time? Although the process of counting humans (or ballots) may be a very basic process, it can be time-consuming and any task performed by humans can and does introduce error into the process.

 In many states, local jurisdictions are expected to conduct the audits, and they may resist requirements that add to their burden. In Colorado, the secretary of state performs the selection process, but it is the local officials who perform the audit itself. The North Carolina statute mandates that a statistician be consulted with to determine the audit sample size necessary to produce a statistically significant result. And New Mexico’s administrative rules require that an approved independent auditor firm be contracted to perform its audits

Audit checklist

Are Risk-Limiting Audits the Future?

Risk-limiting audit legislation is gaining traction. Georgia, Illinois, New York, and Virginia have introduced bills this year that directly relate to risk-limiting audits. This is a small but important uptick from 2017, when only Rhode Island and Virginia passed a bill. However, each state handles the risk-limiting audit differently. In the years before 2017 it was rare to see the term risk-limiting audit in legislation. Still, as with any new procedure, states looking to adopt risk-limiting audits will want to be wary. This list is not exhaustive, but covers some of the larger issues at hand. 

Refining Processes and Best Practices: The practice of risk-limiting audits is new, especially statewide, and processes and best practices are still being developed. It may take years to develop a streamlined process that efficiently, accurately, and properly handles all components of a risk-limiting audit. States can learn from each other, and can allow time for the implementation of risk-limiting audits. Colorado, for instance, first passed its risk-limiting audit law (requiring a pilot program) in 2009 but it didn’t go into effect until 2017.

Technology: Existing voting technology may not fully satisfy all the requirements of a risk-limiting audit. Paper ballots, or at least paper records, are needed. Direct-recording electronic (DRE) machines, with and without a voter verified paper trail, present a unique challenge for risk-limiting audits. And risk-limiting audits require that each ballot be assigned a “cast vote record,” an archived record of all the votes made by a single voter. This provides a way to find the randomly selected paper ballots. In states with millions of ballots cast, matching, and tracking each individual ballot would otherwise be a monumental task.

On the reverse side, as batches of specific ballots are pulled to be audited, the ability to keep ballots secret and anonymous needs to be addressed through technology. In low turnout elections, a small precinct may only have a dozen or so ballots cast. If that precinct is selected for auditing, it may not be hard to determine how each individual cast their vote.

Education: If you have perused an academic article or two that discuss risk-limiting audits, it becomes obvious that education will be key to success. Even with “gentle” and “simple” in the titles, these treatises are full of complex algorithms and equations to determine risk, sample size, and confidence. It will be no easy feat for election officials and the general public to understand and trust the new system—and yet one reason to do audits is to increase confidence.

And yet, if the public does understand that an audit is regularly used in a “trust but verify” way, confidence in elections goes up.  Audits can “serve to assure those who got elected, and those who didn’t, that the election was run fairly, whether we’d like to believe it or not,” said Senator Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-N.M. The same goes for the public too.

Additional Resources

legislation Action Bulletin

  • In session: 43 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.
  • Adjourned: New Mexico, North Carolina.
  • Not yet convened: Louisiana.
  • No sessions this year:  Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Texas.
  • Active elections bills: 2168 bills (many carried over from 2017).
  • Enactments in 2018 to date: 10.

Of the enactments so far this year, three come from South Dakota and cover topics that have been popular this year: voter list maintenance, voting equipment and the process for validating and counting absentee ballots. HB 1011 clarifies procedures for updating voter addresses and information under the NVRA. HB 1013 takes out language referring to DREs in South Dakota statute and adds language that no voting system may be connected to the internet. DREs are not currently used by jurisdictions in South Dakota, but the law ensures that paper ballots will be used in the state into the future. HB 1105 permits local election officials to examine and verify signatures on absentee ballot envelopes before Election Day.  The ballots aren’t tabulated until Election Day, but this change speeds up results reporting. 

The three topics from South Dakota are hot in other states too. In 2018 (including carryover bills from 2017) 95 bills have been introduced on voter list maintenance; 95 bills have been introduced on voting equipment, including standards, requirements and security; and 376 bills have been introduced on the topic of absentee and mail ballots.

For a round-up of enactments from 2017, see NCSL’s webpage, 2017 Election Legislation Enacted by State Legislatures, or listen to a 45-minute webinar, 2017 Election Administration Legislation Review.

NCSL’s Elections Legislation Database provides data on these bills and more.

From the Chair

Senator Mike Folmer represents district 48 in Pennsylvania, which includes Lebanon County and parts of Dauphin and York Counties. The city of Lebanon is home to the Union Canal Tunnel. Completed in 1827, it is the oldest transportation tunnel in the United States. Senator Folmer is the chair of the Senate State Government Committee.

Q: What are the values you hold when working on elections policy?

I believe election policies, like all government actions, should be based upon openness, transparency and accountability.

Q: Have you noticed any trends in the amount election administration legislation in Pennsylvania, or interest in it?

While proposed election law changes have traditionally been the majority of bills referred to the Senate State Government Committee, I have seen a marked increase in bills related to election processes since the 2016 Presidential Election.

Q: What are some of the election administration issues you are looking at in Pennsylvania?

Election security (especially cybersecurity), updating Pennsylvania’s election laws and voting machines, and discussing how electoral lines are drawn are among the issues I have focused on.

Q: What is your relationship with local election officials? How important is that relationship?

I have an excellent relationship with local election officials and was surprised to learn few state officials have attempted to engage them on election issues.  Getting their input on proposed election changes is a top priority for me.

Q: Election cybersecurity has garnered a lot of attention at both the state and federal level. Do you foresee or have hopes of federal assistance or funding?

Cybersecurity is an issue of concern to me and I believe these issues need to be addressed whether or not federal funding is involved.

Q: What are you most proud of when it comes to elections in Pennsylvania?

I am most proud that the principles of my “Voters’ Choice Act” to reduce barriers to ballot access for independent and third-party candidates is now part of Pennsylvania’s election system—thanks to court-ordered changes.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to share about election administration in Pennsylvania with the readers?

I hope my efforts to educate voters will result in them being aware of the importance of election law prior to Election Day.  Failure to properly prepare for elections before they occur endanger one of our most fundamental rights.

The Elections Administrator's Perspective

Grace Wachlarowicz is the assistant city clerk for the city of Minneapolis, Minn. Minneapolis is the largest city in the state and is ranked 46th largest in the country. It was also home to Super Bowl LII in early February. As you’ll read below, Grace also has a special, historical connection with elections in Minnesota.

Q: How did you get into the business of elections?

Minnesota Clerts 1993

By happenstance. I was a retail manager and in 1993 I was hired to administer business licenses and elections for a small city. The city was looking for a candidate with a customer service background. Their priority was to distill the myth of the ‘government worker’ and show that service to its residents was the highest priority.

I fell in love with elections, the epitome of public service. Elections are truly in my blood; in fact, my grandmother was among the first group of women election judges in 1920 for St. Paul. That was the first year women had the right to vote. 

Q: What are some unique issues your office faces, being in an urban area?

Serving a diverse community is a blessing yet very challenging. Our mission is to provide second language support for our citizens. The common languages spoken in Minneapolis are English, Hmong, Somali, Spanish, and Oromo. Minnesota is not federally mandated under Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act. We do so because it is the right thing to do. One challenge, for example is that Hmong, Somali and Oromo have stronger oral traditions, with limited reading proficiency in their native language.

Q: How has your office tackled these challenges?

The Student Election Judge Program is quite successful. In fact, we were honored to receive the U.S.  Election Assistance Commission’s 2017 Clearie Award for Best Practices in Recruiting, Training, and Retaining Election Workers. The program engages students ages 16 and 17 in the electoral process. They are trained and perform all duties on Election Day with a few exceptions under state law. Not only does it encourage civic participation, it is the source for our second language support.

Q: What do you wish legislators would do to learn about your work?

My answer to this question would be talk to us! Election officials have a mutual interest in maintaining the integrity of the election. We are willing and able to inform and educate on the administration of elections. By understanding the ‘behind the scenes’ process, policymakers can not only make informed decisions but learn how they can be effectively applied and implemented. Also, local election officials know what we really do to administer an election and what is financially needed to maintain and upgrade voting equipment and the capacity to execute.   

Ask NCSL

BookmarkWith the 2018 elections on the horizon, how many legislative seats will be on the ballot in November?

Of the 7,383 legislative seats across the country, 6,066 (82 percent) are up for regularly scheduled elections this November.

Which seats aren’t up? For starters, all legislative seats in both chambers in Louisiana, Mississippi, New Jersey, and Virginia. These states use odd-numbered years for legislative elections.

Where else? Senators in Kansas, Minnesota, New Mexico and South Carolina aren’t up for election this year. They have four-year terms, which are up again in 2020. (It’s worth noting that senators in Alabama, Arizona, Maryland, Massachusetts and Michigan all have concurrent four-year terms too, but their timing is different. They run this year and again in 2022.) In other states with four-year senate terms, approximately half the senators are elected this year, and half will be elected in 2020. In 10 states, senators serve two-year terms, and all legislators are up this year.

What about on the House side? The norm is two year-terms—but not entirely so. House members in Alabama and Maryland have four-year terms that are all up for election this year. Louisiana has four-year terms, too, but these are run in odd-numbered years—so they are not up this year. And, in North Dakota, House members serve four-year terms, with approximately half up this year and half up in 2020.

For more information on this topic, visit our 2018 Legislative Races page, as well as our page on the 2018 Primary Election dates.

Worth noting

  • Election Security Report #1. The Center for American Progress issued its Election Security Report on the state of election security and preparedness in all 50 states. The report focuses on seven practices: minimum cybersecurity standards for voter registration systems, voter-verified paper ballots, post-election audits that test election results, ballot accounting and reconciliation, return of voted paper absentee ballots, voting machine certification requirements, and pre-election logic and accuracy testing.
  • Election Security Report #2. The Belfer Center released “The State and Local Election Cyber Security Playbook.” The report notes that its two main goals are to make cybersecurity and the threats understandable to all and to offer risk-mitigation strategies for local and state election officials.
  • Election Security Report #3. The Center for Internet Security, home to MS-ISAC, also released “A Handbook for Elections Infrastructure Security.” Bringing a more technical background into the elections realm, the report gives a general overview of the elections system architecture and lists 88 best practices categorized into low, medium or high priority.
  • NASS/NASED. The National Association of Secretaries of State and the National Association of State Election Directors met for the winter conference in Washington, D.C. Not surprisingly, the topic of discussion was cybersecurity.  
  • Paper Trails. In early February, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf has ordered that all counties looking to replace aging electronic voting systems buy new equipment capable of creating a paper trail.
  • Charts and Graphs. The North Carolina State Board of Elections has some great interactive charts and graphs on their website. Check out their NVRA data, voter registration activity, or voting equipment use.
  • New Lawsuit. The League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) and former Massachusetts Governor William Weld have filed a new lawsuit against the states of Massachusetts, California, South Carolina, and Texas. They are challenging the winner-take-all electoral college vote system in each of these states.
  • Soccer or is it football? A different kind of special election happened in February. For the first time since 2006, the United States Soccer Federation has a newly elected president. In the third round of voting, Carlos Cordeiro, the former vice president, gained the necessary votes to win with a majority. 
  • New at NCSL. In early February, NCSL released “The Price of Democracy: Splitting the Bill for Elections.” The report is the culmination of two years of research into what an election costs and who foots the bill.

From NCSL's Elections team

A graphic that reads "From NCSL Elections Team"NCSL is proud to welcome Dylan Lynch! He comes from the secretary of state’s office in Iowa, and jumped right in with this edition of The Canvass. You’re always welcome to contact thecanvass@ncsl.org, but you might like to go directly to Dylan.Lynch@ncsl.org for elections administration questions.  In his first five weeks he’s already responded to over a dozen information requests from your peers!  As always, we like to hear your news, so one way or the other, please stay in touch. 

—Wendy Underhill and Dylan Lynch