Elections Should be Grounded in Evidence, Not Blind Trust

Commentary in Barron’s this week Elections Should be Grounded in Evidence, Not Blind Trust <read>

Even though there is no compelling evidence the 2020 vote was rigged, U.S. elections are insufficiently equipped to counter such claims because of a flaw in American voting. The way we conduct elections does not routinely produce public evidence that outcomes are correct.

Furthermore, despite large investments since 2016, voting technology remains vulnerable to hacking, bugs, and human error. A report by the National Academies into the 2016 election process concluded that “there is no realistic mechanism to fully secure vote casting and tabulation computer systems from cyber threats.” The existence of vulnerabilities is not evidence that any particular election outcome is wrong, but the big-picture lesson from 2020 is that ensuring an accurate result is not enough. Elections also have to be able to prove to a skeptical public that the result really was accurate.

We need evidence-based elections: processes that create strong public evidence that the reported winners really won and the reported losers really lost, despite any problems that might have occurred. Every step in election administration—from technology choices to voter eligibility checks, physical security, the canvass, and audits—should flow from that requirement…

Here’s what an evidence-based election would look like:

  •  Voters hand-mark paper ballots to create a trustworthy, durable paper vote record. Voters who cannot hand-mark a ballot independently are provided assistive technologies, such as electronic ballot marking devices. But because these devices are subject to hacking, bugs, and software misconfiguration, the use of such ballot-marking devices should be limited.
  • Election officials protect the paper ballots to ensure no ballot has been added, removed, or altered. This requires stringent physical security protocols and ballot accounting, among other things.
  • Election officials count the votes, using technology if they choose. If the technology altered the outcome, that will (with high confidence) be corrected by the steps below.
  • Election officials reconcile and verify the number of ballots and the number of voters, with a complete canvass to ensure that every validly cast ballot is included in the count.
  • Election officials check whether the paper trail is trustworthy using a transparent “compliance audit,” reviewing chain-of-custody logs and security video, verifying voter eligibility, reconciling numbers of ballots of each style against poll book signatures and other records, and accounting for every ballot that was issued.
  • Election officials check the results with an audit that has a known, large probability of catching and correcting wrong reported outcomes—and no chance of altering correct outcomes. The inventory of paper ballots used in the audit must be complete and the audit must inspect the original hand-marked ballots, not images or copies.

None of these steps stands alone. An unexamined set of paper ballots, no matter how trustworthy, provides no evidence. Conversely, no matter how rigorous, audits and recounts of an untrustworthy paper trail provide no evidence that the reported winners won. Auditing or recounting machine-marked ballots or hand-marked ballots that have not been kept secure can check whether the reported outcome reflects that paper trail, but cannot provide evidence that the reported winners won…

outsourcing audits, as Georgia did after the November vote, may prevent such process improvements. It is the responsibility of election officials (and not a third party) to ensure and demonstrate that the paper trail includes no more and no less than every validly cast ballot, and that the reported result is what those ballots show.

We note that, to us, ‘Outsourcing’ audits is a distinct concept from ‘Independent’ audits. Outsourcing implies turning all responsibly over to a hired vendor or entity dependent on election officials for funding. Independent auditing means assigning responsibility for the audit, or at least assessment and oversight of the audit to an entity independent of election officials.


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