Lessons Learned: Our Audit Journey in Pennsylvania

by Mark Lindeman, Acting Co-Director

Over the past three months, the Verified Voting team and I have been from one end of Pennsylvania to the other, assisting with the state’s audit efforts:

PA Audit Map

Everywhere we’ve been, and with every official we’ve talked to, I keep thinking about the difference between where we are now and where we were back in 2016. On election night, I watched the returns come in during the presidential election, with Pennsylvania as one of the key “tipping points” in the unexpected result. And I remember my alarm that there would be no way to check the results to rule out interference, because most in-person voters had voted on machines without paper ballots. These are the counties shown in red below  – with 83% of the state’s registered voters using “paperless” machines:

Verified Voting, together with our coalition partners and local advocates, helped turn this around. Eighteen long months of advocacy finally resulted in an election reform package including $90 million in bond financing that gave county officials the resources they needed to acquire paper-based systems. By 2020, the map of election equipment in Pennsylvania looked very different, with not a paperless voting machine in sight:

But we knew having paper ballots was just the first step. We advised state officials on best practices via our participation on the state’s Post-Election Audit Workgroup. And we put those recommendations into practice, working hand in hand with Philadelphia and Mercer Counties to conduct risk-limiting audit pilots — a critical election security measure — to verify the results. Those pilots helped officials identify process improvements, setting the stage for a statewide pilot audit of the presidential primary — and, ultimately, the more ambitious pilot of the presidential election. Checking the results against voters’ ballots is a huge stride forward for election security in Pennsylvania.

All the disinformation about election fraud underscores the importance of trustworthy evidence. In Pennsylvania and other states, paper ballots and other changes helped ensure — and show — that the 2020 election ran smoothly. Fully 63 out of 67 of Pennsylvania’s counties voluntarily took part in the most recent audit pilot to help allay lingering concerns. Our team visited with election officials in a dozen counties and worked with several others virtually, assisting with detailed audit plans, improving efficiency, and training staff on audit procedures. We also worked alongside our partners at Brennan Center to prepare for legislative testimony.

Though I’m proud of the progress we’ve made in Pennsylvania these past four years, I know there is still more work to be done. We need the audit pilots to become true audits: for them to happen prior to certification and for them to have the ability to correct outcomes should a problem arise. We need to continue to push back against legislation that is being developed in the name of “securing our elections” but really amounts to voter suppression. And just as we continue to help officials understand how to conduct more effective and transparent audits, we’re working to connect voters eager to understand how elections work with reliable information and resources.

Election legislation and preparation is happening right now in this “off-cycle” year — the strides we take over the next several months will let us look back in 2022 and 2024 on even more secure, well-run elections in Pennsylvania, and all the other key states where we are and need to be.

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