Common Sense: Public Transparency and Verifiability

Note: This is the eighth post in an occasional series on Common Sense Election Integrity, summarizing, updating, and expanding on many previous posts covering election integrity, focused on Connecticut. <next> <previous>

In our last post in this series, Why Should Audits Be Independent, we ended with “When it comes to elections, are independent audits sufficient? Not really. We need public transparency and verifiability as well.” In this post, we will address transparency and verifiability.

According to Wikipedia:

Transparency, as used in science, engineering, business, the humanities and in a social context more generally, implies openness, communication, and accountability. Transparency is operating in such a way that it is easy for others to see what actions are performed.

According to Miriam Webster:

Verifiable: Capable of being verified: Verified: to establish the truth, accuracy, or reality of <verify the claim>

What we mean by Publicly Transparent and Verifiable is that members of the public can actually determine the election or audit outcome because the process is transparent in a way that allows the public to verify the result.

This goes beyond a call for independent audits. Independent audits require that we trust the auditors. Certainly an independent audit is more trustworthy than a non-independent audit, which in turn is seemingly better than no audit at all. Perhaps not. No audit at all, clearly provides little confidence the process beyond “trust me, and trust all officials in their integrity, in their competence, and in securing the process”.

Yet, a non-independent audit can provide a false sense of confidence. We can never be completely sure, even of an independent audit – the auditors may be biased, incompetent, sloppy, or compromised. Far fetched? We are not so sure, given the history of transgressions in all walks of live. Elections are especially vulnerable because of the central role they play in democracy and the requirement of the secret ballot, making end to end verification impossible.

But if audits, recounts, and elections are publicly transparent and verifyable, there is an alternative! Members of the public (and candidates) can judge the process and determine the results themselves. When it comes to audits and recounts, for hand counting, the public should be provided an opportunity to clearly see and verify,:

  • each ballot and vote on the ballot as it is being classified
  • that votes are correctly classified
  • that votes and ballots are counted correctly by counting teams in batches
  • that the totals are the valid sums of numbers determined by counting teams in batches
  • that consolidated reports are based on the numbers determined in audited or recounted districts

This is really the minimum for hand count audits and recounts. For audits and recounts (and  elections) to be fully trusted, then the election day process must also be publicly transparent and verifiable and the chain-of-custody needs to also be publicly transparent and verifiable. Let us leave the voting process and the chain-of-custody for another day.

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