As voting in 2018’s midterms ends on Tuesday, November 6, there will be contests with surprising results, races separated by the slimmest of margins, or even ties. How will voters know what to believe without falling prey to partisan angst and conspiracies? What if, as Dean Logan, Los Angeles County’s voting chief, retweeted this week, “the weakest link in election security is confidence”in the reported results? The factual answers lie in the voting system technology used and the transparency — or its lack — in the vote counting, count auditing and recount process. These steps all fall before outcomes are certified and the election is legally over. … In the past decade, two differing approaches to answering that question have emerged and evolved. The first to surface is what’s called a risk-limiting audit (RLA)., now an election technology specialist with the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, was present at the start of developing and implementing RLAs a decade ago when Colorado hired him to improve their audit process. Colorado had been sued for a lack of transparency surrounding its testing and certification after buying new machines in 2006. Back then, Colorado — like many states today — grabbed and examined hundreds of ballots after every election to see if they matched the announced winners.
“We were looking at something more statistically based, that said, ‘Did the winner win?’‘Did the loser lose?’And providing that statistical confidence to the public,”Lovato said. “And that also gave us what we didn’t have, which was what happens if we have a discrepancy. Because the way we did audits before, a county [office] would say,‘We have a discrepancy. Our counts aren’t matching. We ran 150 ballots and our hand count says 149 and the machine says 150.’We [the state] would say, ‘Okay, try it again. Do it one more time. Make sure the hand count was accurate, because that always tended to be the case…’But we didn’t have any kind of calculation that said,‘Look at X-percentage more ballots’or anything.”
That void and guesswork was filled by what’s now called a . While there are several ways to do these, the basic idea is that it is statistically possible to randomly count a small number of paper ballots — if all of the ballots have been carefully handled and assembled (a big if) — and determine with 95 percent probability, or more, if the correct winner was announced.
This past summer, Fairfax County, Virginia, ballot comparison”process assumed that all of the ballots were initially scanned, collected and compiled in a precise order — so they could be subsequently traced by individual ballot. That controlled environment mimics vote centers—a central site where people vote.in a race where 948 ballots were cast. In the first, it wanted 95 percent certainty the correct winner was chosen and, given the math, only needed to pull 69 paper ballots. That “
The second, a “ballot comparison”audit, is designed to verify counts of paper ballots that fall as a disorganized jumble into bins below the scanners at local precincts. Seeking 90 percent certainty, it required officials to examine 260 unique ballots in its initial round. After pulling that many randomly selected ballots from their storage boxes and seeing how their ink marks compared to the reported outcome, the math found there was a “53 percent chance that the audit would have identified an incorrect outcome,”a Virginia Department of Elections said. “In a true RLA, election officials would have selected a second round of sample ballots and completed the process again, repeating until either the risk limit was achieved or it was determined that there was a need to proceed to a full recount.”
Seen nationally, the U.S. in 2018 is mostly voting on paper ballots that are counted by electronic scanners. That creates a spectrum of possible evidence that can be closely examined in 36 states — from individual ballots themselves, to digital images of the ballots, to spreadsheets of every vote, and more.