Audit FAQ

Answers to frequently asked questions about audits.

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Legislation

What are the tabulation audit laws in my state? How do they compare to laws in other states?

Our updated audit law database is coming soon!

Is an audit the same as a recount?

Tabulation audits differ from recounts. Tabulation audits routinely check voting system performance. Recounts repeat ballot counting in special circumstances, such as when preliminary results show a close margin of victory. Post-election audits that detect errors can lead to a full recount if the margin of victory is very small or if the errors are so large that the audit cannot achieve the risk limit.

The State Recount Laws Searchable Database created by Citizens for Election Integrity Minnesota is a useful tool that provides a summary of each state’s recount laws and provides a search option to compare over 60 features of recount laws.

What needs to be included in audit legislation?

Good risk-limiting audit requirements can be enacted in relatively simple legislation (or the equivalent) that does the following (adapted slightly from Risk-Limiting Post-Election Audits: Why and How):

  • Defines a risk-limiting audit
  • Says which election contests should be subject to risk-limiting audits, or how these contests should be chosen
  • Determines how and when to set the risk limit — the maximum chance that auditing a contest with an incorrect outcome will not lead to a full hand count
  • Sets the time frame for completing risk-limiting audits
  • Establishes or requires procedures for checking the integrity of the audit trail, randomly selecting the audit sample, facilitating public observation, reporting audit results, and other aspects of the audit
    • Post-election audit provisions should be harmonized with existing provisions for recounts and other ways of contesting or correcting election results. For instance, it may be appropriate to adjust the time frame for recounts, and/or to require full hand recounts in very close contests in lieu of auditing those contests
    • Most audit implementation details can be established in regulations and/or written procedures, subject to public comment and made available to the public. Omitting implementation details from the legislation can facilitate improvements in risk-limiting audit procedures based on experience, new equipment, and other changed circumstances

See also Principles and Best Practices for Post-Election Tabulation Audits.

Are risk-limiting audits the only option?

No one model for tabulation audits is best for all states and all types of contests. Election traditions, laws, administrative structure and voting systems vary widely. Nonetheless, there are guiding principles that apply across all states. In any particular jurisdiction there may be barriers to the immediate implementation of audits that satisfy all these principles. Best-effort tabulation audits should be performed even if the deployed technology does not support optimal audits, or even if the laws do not permit optimal remedies.

How can the cost of post-election audits be contained?

Recent experience shows RLAs are cost-effective. RLAs can reduce overall audit burden by allocating more resources to closer contests where more checking is needed to validate outcomes. Enabling and encouraging pilot risk-limiting audits allows election agencies to work out details and identify necessary improvements in equipment and processes.

While audit costs will vary depending on the scope of the audits and other considerations, they are a small fraction of election administration costs. For instance, the cost to retrieve and audit ballots for the November 2017 Coordinated Election in Arapahoe County, Colorado (about 350,000 registered voters) was approximately $500 for auditing 516 ballots; the audit followed the best practices recommended in this document. The county tabulated ballots centrally. There were approximately 93,000 ballots cast in that election. This cost does not include the one-time development cost for the RLATool software utility (now available free of charge under an open source license) or expenses tied to ballot imprinting, ballot storage and organization, or other overhead expenses.

Implementation

How much work is involved in a risk-limiting audit (RLA)?

The effort required for a risk-limiting audit depends on a variety of factors, including how ballots are sorted and stored, and the margins of the contests. Conducting an RLA may be easier than you think and may be more efficient than other types of audits. Recent experience shows RLAs are cost-effective. RLAs can reduce overall audit burden by allocating more resources to closer contests where more checking is needed to validate outcomes. See the “Risk-Limiting Audits: Scope and Methods” section of Risk-Limiting Post-Election Audits: Why and How.

Which voting systems features affect risk-limiting audits?

Any voting system with voter-marked paper ballots can be audited with risk-limiting techniques. A system that imprints identification numbers on ballots at the time of scanning can make the ballot-pulling process more efficient. A system that can match the computer’s interpretation of each individual paper ballot to the ballot itself can dramatically reduce the number of ballots audited in close contests.

How can voter anonymity be preserved?

When auditing less common ballot types or very small precincts, care must be taken to preserve voter anonymity and the secrecy of the individual voter’s ballot. Also, it may be possible to confirm the election outcome without sampling some types of ballots, if these types do not contain enough ballots to alter the outcome. However, for fairness and to provide valuable information about the quality of the election process, all ballot types should be routinely audited.

What software is available to support risk-limiting audits?

There are many possible software implementations available. Here are a few options you might consider:

  • For simple audits, two “Audit Tools” web pages developed and maintained by Professor Philip Stark: for ballot-level comparison, and for ballot polling
  • For more complex RLAs, VotingWorks develops the open-source Arlo software, which you can read about here; the GitHub repository is here

For more on audit implementation, see Are you ready to audit?.

Oversight

What are the audit laws in my state? How do they compare to laws in other states?

See State Profiles for each state’s full audit laws.

How are audits implemented in my location?

Contact your state and local Boards of Elections (or the equivalents) and ask. Contact information for state and local election offices is available on The Verifier. Or try entering the name of your town or county, along with the phrase “Board of Elections,” into an internet search engine.

Can I observe election audits?

Yes. Verified Voting’s public oversight guide Checking the Paper Record can help you organize observation.

Audit Algorithms

How can I learn more about audit algorithms?

Algorithms for post-election audits are the subject of active research. There is more than one way to approach the goal: providing solid evidence supporting correct election outcomes and overturning incorrect ones. Here is a short list of introductions to audit algorithms:

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