I. In Focus This Week
Colorado leads the way with risk limiting audits
First-ever RLA shows accuracy of elections in The Centennial State
By M. Mindy Moretti
With the roll of the dice, Colorado recently became the first state in the nation to conduct a post-election risk-limiting audit (RLA).
It’s taken a while to get this point — the legislation requiring RLAs was first approved in 2009, but Secretary of State Wayne Williams said the result was worth the wait.
“We’ve been preparing for this for a number of years," Williams said noting the need to promulgate the rules for the audit, for new voting systems and training at the state and county level. “It required a lot of work and effort from my office and the county clerks and they all came through fabulously. I was thrilled with the success. The fact that every single county passed, I think gives everyone a very high level of assurance of elections in Colorado.”
Williams said it’s important to note that Colorado didn’t begin the RLA process in response to recent concerns about the accuracy of elections, but it is very timely because of concerns being raised.
The state of Maryland conducted an audit of the 2016 general election using auditing software from Clear Ballot. While it was a sophisticated audit, it was not an RLA.
“…[I[t's not a risk limiting audit because the random assignment of ballots to be audited isn't based on the number of ballots cast in a specific race and the closeness of the outcome,” Colorado Director of Elections Judd Choate explained. “In order to do an RLA, you must have the associated statistical equation, which randomly picks ballots based on the likelihood that the ballots selected can show the auditor (to a 91 percent confidence) that the outcome was correct.”
The audit began on Friday, November 17 and all counties were done the beginning of the following week. Although a statewide audit, several counties did not participate because they did not conduct elections this November and at least two did not participate because they are so small and already hand count their ballots.
Once the 20 random numbers were chosen through the roll of the dice they were entered into the software developed by Free & Fair. The software cost the state about $86,000 to create. It was the software that chose the specific ballots from each county that would be audited.
According to Lynn Bartels, spokeswoman for the secretary of state’s office, the software compared the audit boards’ reports of the voter markings to the manner in which they were interpreted by the voting machines. If there were no discrepancies between the human and machine interpretations, the audit stopped and the county could certify official election results. But some discrepancies discovered in the first round may require the county to proceed to another round before the risk limit is satisfied and the audit can be concluded.
Besides learning that the state’s most recent election was accurate — which is a pretty big deal — what else did Colorado learn about the process for next time?
“Since this was the first statewide implementation we expected to learn a lot, and we found several areas where we can improve in the next audit,” Choate said. “From a technology standpoint, we believe some enhancements to the RLA software will help make the audit even more efficient and help us avoid some of the user issues we encountered.
Choate said the changes would include the ability for counties auditing a larger number of ballots to have multiple audit teams working simultaneously, additional information in some of the county reports, and better warning messages for critical activities.
They also found some areas where additional training and work on county processes would be beneficial and could help counties avoid some of the organization challenges they saw in this election.
“We are already beginning to work on updating the user manuals for the next election,” Choate said. “And we'll be updating our contingency planning guide with some of the creative solutions that counties implemented when they ran into challenges, such as temporary loss of power."
The RLA was followed closely by “election geeks” nationwide, but Williams pointed out that they weren’t the only ones following along.
“It’s not just the election geeks,” Williams said. “I’ve had people talk to me who are friends/ associates, people that I know in context other than elections who saw the articles and information about the audit and are excited that yes, they can say with assurance that Colorado’s elections are accurately counted.”
"Colorado is a national leader in exploring innovative solutions for accessible, secure and auditable elections," EAC Chairman Matthew Masterson said. "Colorado’s risk-limiting audit provided great insights into how to conduct more efficient and effective post-election audits. The EAC is eager to share some of the lessons learned with election officials across America."
With other states watching closely watching the process, Williams said that there are two reasons they should consider making RLAs part of their elections process.
“There are really two aspects to the benefit of the RLA,” Williams said. “One is to assure that the election was accurately counted, but the other is to provide the public with that assurance. When you live in a nation where the integrity of the election is the whole basis of our democracy, that confidence is critical.”
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