New Reports from Verified Voting Show How Risk-Limiting Audits in California and Virginia Can Improve Election Security and Public Confidence
Robust post-election audits are changing the election security landscape and the City of Fairfax, Virginia and Orange County, California are leading the way. Risk-limiting audits (RLAs) of voter-marked paper ballots can promote election security and public confidence by providing rigorous statistical evidence that election outcomes match the ballots — and a means to detect and correct outcomes that don’t match. If the method is widely adopted it will bolster confidence in elections. In the months leading up to the midterms, the City of Fairfax and Orange County implemented pilot projects that, as documented in two new reports by the Verified Voting Foundation, with funding support from Microsoft, demonstrated the benefits of risk-limiting audits.
The “Pilot Risk-Limiting Audit” reports, released today at the MIT Election Audit Summit, detail how Orange County and the City of Fairfax conducted pilots — in June and August 2018, respectively — and how these pilots provide lessons for election officials and policymakers around the country.
“The pilots in the City of Fairfax and Orange County provide a framework for risk-limiting audits and are a positive step toward more widespread use of this method going forward,” said Marian K. Schneider, Verified Voting’s president.
The reports discuss the process of developing the pilots, as well as the implementation. An RLA of the tabulation of an election contest checks a random selection of voted paper ballots or voter-verifiable paper records. This statistically-sound audit can stop as soon as it finds strong evidence that the reported outcome was correct. Or, if the reported outcome was wrong because ballots were miscounted in the tabulation, an RLA is very likely to lead to a full hand recount that corrects the outcome.
Colorado became the first state to conduct statewide RLAs in 2017. New Mexico uses a related procedure, and Rhode Island will soon follow suit. The RLA pilots in the City of Fairfax and Orange County represent a growing interest from election officials looking for a reliable and efficient way to provide strong statistical evidence to confirm reported results of vote tallies. Other states looking to replicate robust post-election audits like RLAs must require voters to vote on voter-marked paper ballots, either marked by hand or using ballot marking devices. Direct Recording Electronic (DRE) voting machines that produce “voter-verifiable paper audit trails” provide, at best, an obsolescent stopgap: most voters never check them, and often they are hard to audit.
The reports on the RLA pilots in Orange County and the City of Fairfax demonstrate the importance of frequent audit pilots that include election officials in the design – reducing the burdens on officials and audit staff while also creating support around RLAs – as well as the need for funding to purchase election technology that supports efficient audits. The reports suggest that in addition to this technology, laws and procedures must also be designed with audits in mind in order to help states safeguard elections with robust post-election audits.
“Protecting the integrity of the voting process is a key priority of our Defending Democracy Program, so that people can trust that their vote is properly counted. Risk-limiting audits are an important way to provide confidence in the outcome of an election. We funded Verified Voting Foundation’s “Pilot Risk-Limiting Audit” reports to show that these audits really work,” said Tom Burt, Corporate Vice President, Customer Security & Trust, Microsoft.