Election Audit Summit Brings Together Statisticians, Election Officials and Advocates

November 6, 2007

Note: Citizens for Election Integrity Minnesota was a co-sponsor and the host organization for this national audit summit - the first of its kind.

by Pamela W. Smith, President, Verified Voting Foundation  

As one of six co-sponsoring organizations, Verified Voting Foundation is very pleased to announce that the Post-Election Auditing Summit held October 25-27, 2007 was a success that surpassed the considerable hopes of the team that put it together (American Statistical Association, Brennan Center for Justice, Citizens for Election Integrity Minnesota, Common Cause, Florida Voters Coalition and Verified Voting Foundation). At present, while some three-fourths of the states have passed requirements for voter-verified paper ballots -- or obtained voter-verified paper ballot systems even without a requirement to do so -- only about one fourth of all states are doing any audits at all. Yet audits provide an essential safety check by allowing vote counts to be publicly validated.

The organizers of this event saw an opportunity to help improve this situation, and worked to pull together 100 participants, eight panels, and much lively discussion over three days in Minneapolis. The result was lots of good energy, creative ideas, and a spirit of collegial information sharing. Attendees came from twenty states, including the Vice-Chair of the Election Assistance Commission, top state election officials from several states, and local election officials from a number of states. Just about everyone participated actively.

Though distinct perspectives were presented on some aspects of how audits can and should be done, the Summit seemed to nurture mutual understanding between the state and local election officials, academic experts from statistics, computer science, and political science, and election integrity advocates who participated. The agenda can be viewed here.

Although the concept of auditing voting systems is far from new (as we learned, a design for an auditable voting system existed in 1889), the problem is that we just don't do it, or we hobble the auditors. There's a clear need for effective and efficient auditing methods, and rules that support those methods. We discussed principles and techniques for selection of units to audit, methods for manual counting and reporting, costs and resources required to conduct audits, and the importance of building transparency into all phases of election audits. Participants also discussed strategies for overcoming some of the roadblocks along the path to passing strong audit provisions into state law.

An emerging theme was our mutual need to educate one another and election officials, the media, and the public that we should expect audits to uncover some problems -- as auditing does in every other field where it is done seriously and professionally. But far from having discovery of variances result in lowered public trust, attendees felt such discovery can ultimately increase that trust, if we can demonstrate that identifying and understanding problems helps improve the election process over time. A related theme that resonated with many Summit participants was the need to think less in terms of blame when problems arise and instead shift toward how to improve the over-all election system--working toward a culture of mutual problem-solving in election administration.

Positive results are emerging already from the Summit. We plan to put presentations, handouts, and other materials from the Summit on an expanded version of the electionaudits.org website in the near future, and to provide a written report of the proceedings. Working groups have begun to coalesce on topics as diverse as statistical sampling and measurement, data collection instrument design, a glossary of auditing terms, methods for manual counting and analysis, and auditing legislation and regulations. We've learned of efforts to initiate or improve audit provisions in several states and hope to generate some new legislation in time for it to take effect as early as 2008.

If you would like to learn more, participate on one of the working groups, or to help pass or improve audit requirements in your state, please contact us at electionaudits@verifiedvoting.org or call us at 415-487-2255.

Does your state have an audit provision already, or an audit bill pending? Please let us know if it is not on our list at http://verifiedvoting.org/audits so that we can update our information.