It’s time for better quality control in our election processes. Virginia’s 94th District in the House of Delegates drew names after disputes over a single ballot’s validity. In the 28th District, many voters were told to vote in the wrong district. A single district can determine party control of the House, affecting health care, taxes and education. Yet how can we be sure the ballots we cast are even read and counted correctly? Mathematics makes checking the integrity of our elections simple and inexpensive, and Virginia should do this more often. My grandmother worked in a syringe factory in my hometown. Her supervisor used to pull a few syringes off the line and inspect them. He didn’t check every syringe, but if the ones he randomly checked looked OK, he was confident that the products going out were the right quality. This idea of random checking isn’t just for factories; we rely on it to make sure smoke detectors will save us in a fire and restaurants won’t make us sick.
When we submit our ballots, how do we know the machine is reading them correctly? How do we know that the machine didn’t mix up two candidates and declare a landslide victory for the wrong one? The short answer is, unless we check some ballots, we don’t.
When we think about checking ballots in an election, we often think of a full hand recount. This is clearly expensive and time consuming, but doing nothing also has costs. What if we could check only a very small number of ballots to make sure our elections were running as smoothly as the syringe factory? Risk-limiting audits let us do just that, and Virginia has started this process. But current laws could let a voting machine go unchecked for up to five years.