Some readers may sigh relief at the news that today's post is the last (for a while at least!) in a series about the use of vote-count auditing methods to detect a situation in which an election result was garbled by the computers used to create them. Today, a little reality check on the use of the the risk-limiting audit methods described earlier. As audit guru Mark Lindeman says,

Risk-limiting audits clearly have some valuable properties, yet no state has ever implemented a risk-limiting audit.

Why not? Despite the rapid development of RLA methods (take a quick glance at this paper to get a flavor), there are several obstacles, including:

  • Basic mis-conceptions: Nothing short of a full re-count will ever prove the absence of a machine count error. Instead, the goal of RLA is to reduce risk that machine count errors altered the outcome of any contest in a given election. Election result correctness is the goal, not machine operations correctness -- yet the common mis-perception is often the reverse.
  • Requirements for election audits must be part of state election laws or regulation that implements them. Details of audit methods are technical, and difficult to write into law -- and detailed enough that it is perhaps unwise to enshrine in law rather than regulation. Hence, there is some tension and confusion about the respective roles states' legislative and executive branches.
  • Funding is required. Local election officials have to do the work of audits of any kind, and need funding to do so. A standard flat-percent audit is easier for a state to know how to fund, rather than a variable-effort RLA that depends on election margins and voter turnout.
  • The variability itself is a confusing factor, because you can't know in advance how large an audit will have to be. This fact creates confusion or resistance among policy-makers and under-funded election officials.
  • Election tabulation systems often do not provide timely (or any) access to the data needed to implement these audits efficiently. These systems simply weren't designed to help election officials do audits -- and hence are another variable cost factor.
  • Absentee and early-voting ballots sometimes pose large logistical challenges.
  • Smaller contests are harder to audit to low risk levels, so someone must decide how to allocate resources across various kinds of contests.

As Lindeman points out, each of these problems is tractable, and real progress in RLA practice can be made without a solution to all of these problems. And in my view, one of the best ways to help would be to greatly increase transparency, including both the operations of the voting systems (not just the tabulation components!), and of the auditing process itself. Then we could at least determine which contests in an election are most at risk even after the audits that election officials are able to conduct at present. Perhaps that would also enable experts like Lindeman to conduct unofficial audits, to demonstrate effectiveness and help indicate efforts and costs for official use of RLA.

And dare I say it, we might even enable ordinary citizens to form their own judgement of an individual contest in an election, based on real published facts about total number of ballots cast in a county, total number of votes in the contest, margins in the contest, total number of precincts, precincts officially audited, and (crank a statistics engine) the actual confidence level in the election result, whether the official audit was too little, too much, or just right. That may sound ambitious, and maybe it is, but that's what we're aiming for with operational transparency of the voting system components of the TTV System, and in particular with the TTV Auditor -- currently a gleam in the eye, but picking up steam with efforts from NIST and OASIS on standard data formats for election audit data.

-- EJS