Meaningful Election Audits
Restoring Balance to a System of Unaccountable Technology
All elections should be audited to ensure the integrity of democracy. Optical scan vote-counting systems and Direct Recording Electronic (DRE) machines have known error rates and security vulnerabilities that warrant meaningful procedures to check the accuracy of the vote count.
It is particularly important to compare voting machine results with a manual count of paper ballots or other paper audit logs. Reviewing paper records is the only way to ensure that the audit is independent of the original tabulation system.
A properly designed post-election audit can find counting errors, correct them, deter fraud, provide data for continuous improvement in election administration, and promote public confidence in elections.
Election audits should be:
- Consequential: Designed to catch and reverse an incorrect election outcome.
- Timely: Conducted before official results are certified.
- Secure: Have procedures that keep the audit trail complete and intact.
- Paper: Manual inspection of paper ballots or audit logs, not electronic media.
- Random: A truly random sample of individual ballots.
- Escalating: Count more ballots until there is strong evidence of a correct outcome.
- Public: Open to witnesses or broadcast online.
- Mandatory: Audits must be performed to ensure accuracy and accountability.
Election Audit Quality Across the United States
Principles and Best Practices
ElectionAudits.org is an invaluable resource on the principles and best practices of post-election audits. Its work is endorsed by many of the top election defense organizations in the United States. Researchers affiliated with the project have identified the following principles:
TRANSPARENCY: Elections belong to the public. The public must be allowed to observe, verify, and point out procedural problems in all phases of the audit without interfering with the process.
INDEPENDENCE: The authority and regulation of post-election audits should be independent of officials who conduct the elections. The actual work of post-election audits may be best performed by the officials who conduct the elections.
PAPER RECORDS: Ideally, post-election audits use hand-to-eye counts of voter-marked, voter-verified paper ballots. Where such paper ballots are not available, other forms of voter-verifiable paper records should be used.
CHAIN OF CUSTODY & BALLOT ACCOUNTING: Robust ballot accounting and secure chain of custody of election materials and equipment are prerequisites for effective post-election audits.
RISK-LIMITING AUDITS: Post-election audits reduce the risk of confirming an incorrect outcome. Audits designed explicitly to limit such risk (risk-limiting audits) have advantages over fixed-percentage or tiered audits, which often count fewer or more ballots than necessary to confirm the outcome.
ADDRESSING DISCREPANCIES and CONTINUING THE AUDIT: When discrepancies are found, additional counting and/or other investigation may be necessary to determine the election outcome or to find the cause of the discrepancies.
COMPREHENSIVE: All jurisdictions and all ballot types, including absentee, mail-in and accepted provisional ballots, should be subject to the selection process.
ADDITIONAL TARGETED SAMPLES: Including a limited number of additional targeted samples of ballots can increase audit effectiveness and public confidence. Such samples may be selected by candidates, issue committees, parties, election administrators, or others as provided by regulation.
- BINDING ON OFFICIAL RESULTS: Post-election audits must be completed prior to finalizing official election results and must either verify the outcome or, through a 100 percent recount, correct the outcome.