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.
risk limiting audits
You did your civic duty. You voted. You may even get a red, white and blue sticker to wear proudly on your T-shirt. But are you sure your vote will be counted — and counted properly? If your state uses computers for voting or counting results, there’s a chance it may not, experts say. “We know that computers can have some bugs or even cleverly-hidden malicious code called malware,” said Barbara Simons, president of Verified Voting, a non-profit, nonpartisan group encouraging secure and accurate elections. “As we learned in 2016, we also have to worry about the possibility of computers and voting systems being hacked,” she added. But if you live in Colorado, you’ll now have a better chance of finding out if your vote fell victim to a glitch or a hack.
We are proud to announce that Colorado has chosen Free & Fair to build a risk-limiting audit (RLA) system to be used statewide beginning with the November 2017 general election. First developed in 2008, RLAs promote evidence-based confidence in election outcomes by comparing a random sampling of paper ballots to their corresponding digital versions. This will be the first time anywhere in the United States that risk-limiting audits are conducted on a regular, statewide basis. Free & Fair has already prototyped an open source risk-limiting audit tool called OpenRLA, for RLAs of election contests in single jurisdictions. The production RLA system being developed for Colorado will facilitate statewide, multi-county and individual county audits. Like OpenRLA, the RLA system developed for Colorado will be released under an open source license (GPL Version 3). Risk-limiting audits provide strong statistical evidence that a jurisdiction’s voting system accurately interpreted and tabulated voter markings on paper ballots, with relatively little hand counting. The “risk limit” is the largest chance that an outcome-changing error in the initial tabulation will not be discovered and corrected in the audit. If the risk limit is 5% and the outcome wouldn’t match the result of a full, accurate count of the paper ballots, there is at least a 95% chance that the audit will correct the outcome.
Editorials: Peace of Mind for a Tumultuous Election: Paper Trails and Risk-Limiting Audits | Arlene Ash and Mary Batcher/Huffington Post
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.