Pretty much any time the word "audit" gets used to describe a process of double-checking something, or getting a second pair eyes ... the eyes glaze over. Despite Shakespeare's adage, calling something "audit" is pretty much the kiss of death for interest value. But what I want to do today is talk about the A-word in the context of elections, to separate out several of the confusingly many meanings of the term, and focus on one meaning of the term -- the one where you should be interested if you want to understand how election officials try to ensure that an election result is correct -- including ensuring that the results weren't garbled by the computers used to create them. I hope that's an important enough issue to keep you reading a couple more paragraphs. Here some of the many uses and abuses of the term:
- Each county is subject to review of the "election evidence" that includes the county level results, ballot info, and loads of records of how the election was conducted, e.g. poll books, paper tapes from voting machines. The A-word is mis-used to describe these review activities of a state canvassing board, the body that decides to make election results official by "certifying" them. Such reviews rarely include scrutiny of loads of election evidence, but in close races or cases of apparent irregularity, there can be plenty of scrutiny. Canvass board review is part of every election, regardless of the way that voting is performed.
- During a re-count, a county or state can sometimes bring in outside professionals to help perform or assess the procedures for conducting a recount. These pros sometimes are employees of big name accounting firms that also do corporate financial audits. A-word creeping in again.
- There is a particular auditing practice of counties that use computer-counted paper ballots. A more accurate technical term is "risk limiting audit". Though this term is, over and above the kiss, the full-body embrace of death for interest value, it's very important if you want to understand the potential drawbacks of using machine-counted paper ballots. More on this later.
- Lastly, the term audit has been used to describe a process in which independent parties -- not election officials or deputed volunteers, or contractors from audit firms -- can gain access to and use information about what election officials did to ensure correct election results. The best-known recent example is the Humboldt County Transparency Project's work towards enabling members of the public to re-do the county's process of counting the ballots. In it's recent Senate race recount, Minnesota also took some notable steps forward by showing the public the wacky mail-in ballots that they had to decide whether or not to count, and letting the public know what their decisions were.
Now, here is the kind of audit that is the most worth understanding and working towards, in the spirit if full transparency of election operations: something like #4, but with the scope of #1, that is, public access to the greatest legally allowable amount and kind of information that allows us to see in detail what our public servants did in conducting the election - warts and all, because no election is ever done perfectly. Sound like a big job? Sure, but computers are pretty good at storing, tracking, and publishing all kinds of information; so as we progressively computerize elections (yes, it's happening, whether or not you or I like it), those systems can in fact enable transparency at that very detailed level. At least, that's what we believe at TrustTheVote, and we'll try to prove it by making the technology and getting it out there for real use. We'll see!
PS: Coming soon: more on the A-word - really understanding the boring-sounding "risk limiting audit" and whether it actually helps ferret out errant voting machines. Not a rosy story, but more interesting than the A-word I hope!