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Process audits evaluate whether a particular operation, such as the procedure for checking in voters at a polling place, conformed to standards.

The What, Why and How of Election Audits

By Amanda Zoch | Aug. 5, 2021 | State Legislatures News | Print

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. Recently, the U.S. Department of Justice 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, a Republican, is a past member of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, a former senior cybersecurity advisor at the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency and a current fellow at the Stanford Internet Observatory. Morrell is a former local election official, a co-founder of The Elections Group, a consulting partnership, and the nation’s foremost expert on verifying election results.

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. —Matt Masterson, Stanford Internet Observatory

What we learned: Audits, standard practice in accounting and many governmental processes, are becoming increasingly 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.”

An 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 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—aka 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 in which 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, in which 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 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 adds, “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, including ethical guidelines, exist for certified auditors, 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 offices may need more space and more staff. Professionalization is key as well, 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 has 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 such an audit 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 Justice Department’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 inviting the media and policymakers to watch a mock audit, or a combination of the above.

As legislators ask whether audits increase trust in elections, we ask legislators, “How can we help?”

Amanda Zoch is an NCSL policy specialist and Mellon/ACLS Public Fellow. This story first appeared in the August issue of NCSL’s election policy newsletter The Canvass.

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