I. In Focus This Week
Maryland conducts first statewide audit of election results
Audit gave counties confidence in numbers as they moved to certification
By M. Mindy Moretti
At a recent elections-related conference, when the topic of the reliability of the elections process came up, one Maryland county official remarked that local and county elections officials are always auditing.
They audit results, they audit registration databases, you name it, they audit it and they are doing it all the time.
This November Maryland took that one step further and became the first known state to conduct a statewide independent automated audit of their November general election.
According to Nikki Charlson, deputy state administrator, the audit provided local and state officials with a confidence in their results as they moved toward the certification process.
“I think that being able to, in a matter of a couple days, be able to be confident that the system used across the state accurately counts votes, and have that information for all the ballots before the locals certify, is terrific,” Charlson said.
Following a pilot program in June 2016 in two counties where the state tested three different post-election tabulation audit methodologies, the State Board of Elections decided that an independent automated tabulation audit was the best way to audit the state’s 2016.
The state contracted with Boston-based Clear Ballot to conduct the audit.
“We are confident that this is the first time a state has audited, by an independent, automated system, every ballot cast, for every contest, in every county,” said Hillary Lincoln, marketing and communications manager for Clear Ballot.
Charlson noted that all the types of audits validate the accuracy of election, but that with local elections officials straining under a massive workload in the days following an election, the independent, automated audit provided a confidence without that much additional work.
“It was quick enough that would there have been an issue we would have had time to look into it and we would have known where/what the discrepancy was,” Charlson said. “That makes our follow-up work more efficient.”
Clear Ballot provided all the counties and Baltimore City with hard drives that they then exported an image of every ballot cast onto. Charlson said that was probably the bulkiest part of the process, but it was also a process that didn’t need to be babysat so staff could start it and go home for the night.
Overall Charlson was happy with the process, but she did note that the uploading did take a bit longer than they had anticipated.
“We haven’t done a full-blown, lessons learned on this, but the process was smooth,” Charlson said, and it showed that “[t]he tabulation was perfect.” She added that the state will look to adjust some of their poll worker training to better explain to voters how to fill in the ballots though.
Clear Ballot, which has conducted partial audits in other states, was pleased with the process as well.
“We are very happy with the Maryland post-election audit project and consider it a great success based on the feedback we have received from the SBE,” Lincoln said. “We haven't yet had time to sit down with the MD SBE to discuss whether the process should change, but we always try to improve and become more efficient with each election. Training for our next statewide audit will benefit greatly from our experience working with the Maryland SBE.”
The audit cost the state $275,000, which with about 2.7 million voters was approximately $.10 per ballot. The costs were split 50/50 between the state and counties, which is the case for all election costs in Maryland.
While Maryland did a statewide audit, Vermont is one of many states to do random audits of a select number of precincts/towns. The use of automated auditing has allowed Vermont to expand its audit process.
“With new technology, we have been able to increase the number of towns to audit from four to six and are now able to audit every race in each town, where previously we only audited two statewide races,” explained Chris Winters of the secretary of state’s office.
The future of audits
Some audit provisions are more than five decades old, so it's not a new idea, but Pam Smith, president of Verified Voting hopes that the lessons learned from this election cycle — and the public support for audits — leads more states to follow in Maryland’s footsteps.
“The way we restore public confidence in elections is by showing them we do robust audits each time,” Smith said. “Audits are non-partisan, time-honored processes for examining evidence to learn what we can learn about correctness of outcomes and proper functioning of the equipment we depend upon for counting our votes.”
Smith said most states don’t do audits robust enough to confirm the correctness of the outcome so the advocacy arm of Verified Voting will be working in the coming months and years to encourage states to do just that.
Charlson said the state will most likely conduct such an audit for future elections and does recommend it for other states as well.
“I think that a software tabulation audit provides the level of confidence without the additional effort at crazy busy time for election officials,” Charlson said. “The manual ways validate the results, but you remove the strong likelihood of human error and I can tell in that 10-day post- election when we’re tired and we’re rushed, we’re going to make mistakes. With this, you take out the whole possibility of human error.”
Clarification: While Smith of Verified Voting strongly supports conducting audits, she wanted to make clear that she does not support the type of audit Maryland conducted because it uses electronic-only methods to review the ballots.
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