More than a dozen counties have now participated in a California-wide pilot project to provide a real-world test of what had previously been an academic theory. The pilot was authorized under California Assembly Bill 2023, which passed in 2010. Including audits conducted before the bill’s passage, 23 contests have been audited across several county-level elections in the state in recent years, and other counties, including Orange, Marin, and Yolo, will have additional audits in the coming weeks. California already has a mandatory audit law, which stipulates that a public manual tally of 1 percent of the precincts, chosen at random, must take place. But in Stark’s view, this is the wrong way to proceed. “There is no statistical justification for the 1 percent tally,” Stark explained. “It is a check on the accuracy of the system, but it is not well tied to ensuring that outcomes are right. It doesn’t require more counting for small margins than for large ones, and it does not require a full hand count, even if something is obviously wrong.”
“In a contest I audited in Orange County,” Stark added, “the chance the 1 percent count might not find any errors at all even if the outcome had been wrong could have been as large as 88 percent.” Risk-limiting auditing, by contrast, takes into account the margin of victory. A wider margin of victory means there’s less risk that something went wrong, so the system requires fewer votes to audit—sometimes dramatically fewer.
Some vote registrars appreciate the new system. “Academics like Professor Stark bring an unbiased, fact-based approach to solving problems, unlike some election reform activists that promote changes based on superstition and emotion,” said Marin County’s registrar of voters, Elaine Ginnold, in a 2010 UC Berkeley news release. “It is the more objective approach that will result in meaningful election reform such as the proposal in this election audit bill.”
Rivest, who has published academic papers with Stark on this issue, also lauded the process, which until last week he had not witnessed in person.