Op-Ed: End Exemptions To Post-Election Audits

Op-Ed for Connecticut Citizen Election Audit published today at CTNewsJunkie:   <read>

OP-ED | End Exemptions To Post-Election Audits

by Luther Weeks | Oct 15, 2014

When auditing town expense accounts, would it make sense to exempt some departments? When inspecting trucks, would it make sense to exempt school buses? When inspecting restaurants, would it make sense to exempt diners? Any exemption is an opening for errors to go undetected and an opportunity for fraud.

Equally  it doesn’t make sense that the Connecticut’s post-election audit law exempts all votes on questions, election day registration, originally hand-counted ballots and absentee ballots from our post-election audit. Election integrity and public confidence demand that all ballots be subject to random selection for audit. Exempt ballots already determine many elections, while the number and percentage of exempt ballots is growing.

Currently about 9 percent of ballots are absentee ballots, many elections and primaries are decided by much lower margins than 9 percent. If the State enacts early voting, following other states those numbers will almost certainly rise to over 30 percent within a few years. Compare that to the race for governor in 2010, which was officially decided by about 0.6 percent—more than triple the 2000 vote margin necessary for a recanvass. Since Connecticut recently initiated Election Day registration, we can anticipate those votes to reach 10 percent of votes in a few years, which will further add to the totals exempt from the audit.

In 2010, the audit counted over 23,000 ballots from Bridgeport for the governor’s race. We found many counting and accounting errors, especially with emergency paper ballots that were counted by hand on election night. Less known is that a handful of other towns also had similar numbers of emergency hand-counted ballots in 2010. There are hand-counted ballots in every election – all of these are currently exempt from the post-election audits.

Officials in many states hand-count votes accurately in audits, using uniform, proven and effective counting methods. In Connecticut, many municipalities use ad hoc, inadequate methods to manually count ballots. Even under the ideal planned conditions of audits, many officials argue that they cannot count ballots accurately by hand and attribute almost all differences large and small, to their own errors. Many towns manually count large numbers of ballots at the end of a demanding seventeen-hour-plus election day, when there is no expectation, planning, staff, or training to count large numbers of ballots by hand on election night. How many voters are aware that many towns now avoid scanners and hand-count all votes in some primaries? Yet, we have no audit to assess how accurate these manual-counts are.

In November 2012 officials in one town investigated a difference and determined that polling place officials mistakenly read 151 ballots into a scanner a second time. Despite checks that could have caught the error before certification, the discrepancy was not detected until the audit. In another town, a similar error was made in the central count of absentee votes. It was discovered by citizens reviewing election records and resulted in reversing the official result on a highly charged question. How common are such errors? We will never know until we stop exempting absentee ballots and questions from the audit.

The good news is that we do not have to spend more to increase confidence in our elections. Connecticut is one of twenty states with hand-count audits. Our existing audit, at 10 percent of polling places, seems among the strongest. A small state needs to audit more to achieve the same confidence as a large state. This is because the statistical confidence of an audit, just like the confidence of a poll, is more dependent on the number of units counted than on the percent of the votes or voters in the election. We can reduce that 10 percent, even counting fewer total ballots, and gain confidence by subjecting all ballots to audit, while using efficient, proven counting methods.

Luther Weeks is executive director of the Connecticut Citizen Election Audit.

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