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Elections Q&As for Lawmakers: What Does It Mean to Audit an Election?

Election audits are instrumental in detecting voting system errors and providing accountability through evidence.

By Lesley Kennedy  |  February 28, 2024

About this series: NCSL hosted legislators and legislative staff in December 2023 to answer common questions surrounding election processes and options, with an eye toward bill drafting in 2024 and beyond. Experts delved into topics ranging from absentee and mail voting and the role of poll watchers to technology and maintaining clean voter rolls. State Legislatures News broke down the questions and answers to help inform lawmakers on the intricacies of elections. Check Elections Q&As for Lawmakers often for more information.

The Expert: Jennifer Morrell, CEO and co-founder, The Elections Group

There are clear parallels between serving in the military and election administration.

While serving in the U.S. Air Force, Morrell was tasked with supporting the complex B-1B bomber and quickly learned the importance of precision and compliance with standards. And just as the military uses written procedures for everything from aircraft maintenance to uniforms and dress, Morrell sees value in applying similar guidelines to elections.

"We had written standards, and someone from my squadron would perform quality control inspections to ensure compliance," she says. “This systematic approach is transferable to election administration, offering a way to ensure each step, from ballot handling to counting, adheres to established protocols.”

Top Two Takeaways

  • Providing clear written standards to election administration processes helps ensure accuracy, compliance and trust in the democratic system.
  • Comprehensive, transparent election audits play a critical role in detecting errors, providing accountability, deterring fraud, and offering feedback for process improvement, with the goal of enhancing public confidence in election outcomes.

Morrell's current work has led her to focus on election audits, instrumental in detecting voting system errors and providing accountability through evidence.

"Audits can help deter fraudulent activities,” she says. “By doing that, it helps us assure that votes were issued, counted and reported accurately." Audits, she adds, are invaluable for continual process improvement, revealing gaps and issues that can be addressed for future elections.

Audits of voting equipment, according to Morrell, can include the common fixed percentage audit, where a predetermined percentage of ballots are hand-tallied and compared to machine counts, and also more dynamic risk-limiting audits, driven by the margin of victory, which can escalate to a full hand recount if discrepancies arise. Then, there are unique audit processes, such as in Florida, where ballots are scanned on different voting systems to ensure consistency.

Rather than installing a one-size-fits-all audit method, Morrell's team has identified 11 principles for tabulation audits. Some of these include auditing both statewide and countywide contests, pre-audit ballot accounting, randomly drawing samples from all ballots, ensuring auditors conduct blind reviews and conducting audits independently of those who handled the ballots.

And don’t forget the creation of ballot manifests, logs detailing the number of ballots scanned and their storage locations.

"It's the way we tie together the reconciliation in a way that's independent of our voting system," she says, noting its importance in verifying ballot custody and count accuracy.

Morrell's team has mapped the election process from voter registration to ballot storage, identifying opportunities for audits and tests to verify accuracy at every stage and looking at specific audit types, such as voter list maintenance, district assignment, and ballot proofing audits, which can further fortify the election system's integrity.

Looking to the future, Morrell poses questions that could shape election audits moving forward:

  • Who should have the authority to validate and oversee audits?
  • Could the roles of canvassing boards evolve?
  • How might audits influence recounts?
  • Should certification deadlines be adjusted to allow more thorough auditing?

“We need to do a better job at producing audit reports and results—and not only in a way that academics can digest, make sense of and interpret,” Morrell says, reflecting on the broader implications of election integrity. "We also need to provide reports and communication in plain language that any voter can take a look at, understand, determine what was done by whom and learn what was discovered."

Lesley Kennedy is NCSL’s director of publishing and digital content.

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