The state of Colorado has taken a step toward rebuilding public trust in the election system in the United States. Beginning in November 2017, Colorado will require risk-limiting audits, or RLAs, in elections statewide. The state has always required traditional post-election audits, but in 2009, a law passed requiring RLAs throughout Colorado. According to the statute, an RLA is “an audit protocol that makes use of statistical methods and is designed to limit acceptable levels of risk of certifying a preliminary election outcome that constitutes an incorrect outcome.” This means that all post-election audits in the state of Colorado compare a random sample of paper ballots to their digital counterparts. Colorado’s law is, in large part, a reaction to recent events in the U.S. and across the globe that have called the security of electronic voting systems into question and emphasized the importance of election audits for all levels of elections.
For instance, in the 2008 Senate race in Minnesota, the incumbent Republican senator, Norm Coleman, was reported as the winner based on the electronic tally. However, after hand counting the paper ballots, Democratic challenger Al Franken was declared the actual winner by a slender margin of 312 votes, in a race where almost 3 million votes were cast.
In the U.S., some states — such as Minnesota — still rely on the use of paper ballots to cast votes, while others have moved entirely onto electronic systems, such as direct recording electronic (DRE) systems or optical scan systems. This means that some states have a paper trail after elections and some states do not.
Some of the states that use paper ballots now have laws that require traditional post-election audits. This entails a hand count of a fixed percentage of the paper ballots with a comparison to the electronic records that are kept in tandem with the paper trail. The laws vary by state, but finding a significant discrepancy between the verified paper records and the electronic tally could potentially result in a recount.