With increasingly heated allegations of “rigged elections,” things have probably not gotten better since a September 29 poll concluded that “more than 15 million voters may stay home on Election Day” over concerns about cyber-security. Equally problematic would be doubts about who won following November 8. A vibrant democracy requires trusted elections. Paper validation of ballots cast and meaningful audits of those ballots are important – and neglected – tools for bolstering trust. As statisticians working in healthcare and business, we frequently help researchers, patients, and business executives think about the probability and severity of potential risks. Based on the news coverage it receives, you might think that the problem of people who are not entitled to vote showing up at polling places is rampant. It is not. A comprehensive study of all American elections between 2000 and 2014 identified only 31 possible cases out of a billion votes cast. That is, only 0.000003 percent of votes might have been due to the kind of fraud that Voter ID laws could possibly prevent! In contrast, electoral malpractice, intentional or not – including confusing ballot designs, computer security breaches and malfunctions, long lines, partisan administration, misleading information about where and how to vote, poorly maintained voting lists, and overly aggressive voter list purges – plague every American election.
Many of us woke up to these issues in 2000, as wrangling over the vote for president in Florida introduced a whole new vocabulary (“butterfly ballots,” “hanging chads”) for what can go wrong. There, the “margin of sloppiness” far exceeded the slender official 537-vote “margin of victory.” Despite much subsequent research, we will never really know which candidate received more votes.
To be fair, conducting high-integrity elections is hard, and perfection is not possible. However, if “we the people” want elections worthy of our trust, our tax dollars and laws should be used to adopt best practices, many of which are summarized on the U.S. Election Assistance Commission website.
One key best practice is an impartial, meaningful audit of voter-verified ballots. Unfortunately, after Florida we turned to computers to side-step the messy problem of interpreting paper ballots, forgetting the need for auditable records. The voter-verified ballot is the record of the underlying “truth” that an official vote count must reflect. No electronic recount of machine ballots can tell how often the tabulated count fails to reflect the voter’s choice.