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Don’t be scared. We can make America’s 2020 election results trustworthy

Philip Stark, professor of statistics | October 19, 2020

Co-authored by Richard Painter, a law professor at the University of Minnesota and former chief ethics lawyer for George W. Bush; and Leanne Watt, a clinical psychologist in Pasadena, California

Vote buttonAmericans are scared. Regardless of what the polls suggest, they understand that our elections and democracy are under attack. And a power grab is still unfolding, marked by legal games, voter suppression, a crippled postal system and a politicized Supreme Court, which may decide a disputed election.

Meanwhile, all electronic voting machines, whether directly connected to the internet or not, remain vulnerable to hacking and fraud.

Despite these serious challenges, there is a way to make America’s 2020 election results trustworthy. Our nation can have an evidence-based presidential election if voters and election officials act now.

In this op-ed, we discuss three simple but essential tools that will produce strong, verifiable evidence that the reported winner really won, despite any fraud or malfunction. This means generating a dependable record of votes on paper ballots, keeping that paper trail physically secure, and auditing the reported results against that paper.

Whenever possible, we recommend voting by hand on paper ballots. This first step prevents fraud at the front-end of the election process. Hand-marked paper cannot be hacked. If you plan to vote in person, don’t assume your state provides hand-markable paper ballots. Check this easy-to-read map to make sure. If your state or jurisdiction does not provide paper ballots at polling places, you can instead request a provisional ballot (most states offer them) or request a vote-by-mail ballot.

Voting on an absentee or vote-by-mail ballot is a good way to hand-mark a paper ballot. Request your ballot now. The vast majority of states provide no-excuse mail-in ballots or allow Covid-19 as a reason to request one. (Check your state’s excuse policy.)

Complete your ballot carefully. Every election, a small percentage of ballots aren’t counted because of avoidable voter errors. But even a few votes can change the outcome of a close race. Sign the envelope with your “official signature,” not your “grocery store signature.” If the ballot says to “fill in an oval,” then completely fill it in; do not use a check mark or X or circle a name. Use a pen with blue or black ink.

The best way to return your mail-in ballot is to drop it off at your local election official’s office, an official, monitored drop box, or a polling place. (Check if your state requires ballots to be returned by mail or to find the nearest drop box.) If you must return your ballot by U.S. Postal Service, mail it right away, regardless of your state’s deadline for postmarks and receiving ballots. Put stamps on the envelope unless your state prepays the postage.

If you mail or deposit your ballot in a drop box, check whether it was received on your state’s tracking system. If you see evidence of voter suppression, voter intimidation, or obstacles (such as long lines or broken machines) that are making it difficult to vote, it’s important to “say something.”

Vote early if you can. Many states allow early in-person voting at vote centers or county offices and some let you drop your mail-in ballot early at vote centers. Check your state’s policy.

Once the paper ballots are marked, however, they need to be secured from tampering. This step is a U.S. Election Assistance Commission’s “best practice” standard. Election officials in every state must commit to safeguarding paper ballots and other election materials from fraud and error.

The third and final step in evidence-based elections is to conduct risk-limiting audits. These audits, which require hand-marked paper ballots kept demonstrably secure, ensure that the reported winner really won, even if back-end systems that count paper ballot votes are hacked. (No other election auditing method can determine, with high confidence, that the official winner is the true winner!)

Risk-limiting audits are the gold standard in post-election audits and are endorsed by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. (Full disclosure, one of us created the audits, which are also a foundational part of Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden’s election security bill.) Election officials must commit to conducting risk-limiting audits, whether the reported election result is close or not.

Now is the time to pressure election officials to safeguard paper ballots verifiably and to conduct risk-limiting audits. Let’s demand compliance with evidence-based election standards in the seven swing states using paper ballots exclusively: Arizona, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

Volunteering for the most effective get-out-the-vote activities can help to reduce the impact of election manipulation; the more eligible voters vote, the harder it is to conceal certain types of election fraud. It is possible to mobilize hundreds of thousands of additional eligible voters in swing states by employing simple, voter turnout strategies that utilize potent persuasion psychology research methods. (Studies show that when the possibility of being “benignly observed” exists, people tend to do good things for their communities.

When these findings are applied to get-out-the-vote strategies, research shows that voter turnout exponentially increases, compared to standard voter turnout methods.) Working smarter in swing states will also help to convert a tight, likely-to-be contested race into a decisive victory. We cannot afford a repeat of 2016, when the election was decided by 80,000 votes and razor-thin margins in three states.

Cross-posted from the NBC News website

Comments to “Don’t be scared. We can make America’s 2020 election results trustworthy

  1. What scares me are the “legal” shenanigans after the election by Barr and the throngs of RNC attorneys. If they start challenging signatures or if Trump claims victory on Tuesday night, we’re off to the races.

    Republicans are already planting the idea that the only legitimate votes are those counted by Tuesday night. The counts have never been completed election day. But if they persuade enough ignorant people with that lie, there could be real violence.

    How likely is that?

  2. What we actually need is a ten miles asteroid with our name, because human beings do not apprehend what lifestyles are all about. This is a stunning planet, and human beings are destroying the entirety on earth.

  3. Dear Dr. Lusinchi–

    Thank you for your comment.

    It’s definitely late in the game, but there have been more than 60 risk-limiting audits (some just procedural pilots, but many that were rigorous and legally binding) including about 10 statewide audits; there’s open-source software to conduct the audits; and there’s any number of people with experience who would help gratis. There’s a fair amount of logistics involved, but it really isn’t that complicated, especially “ballot-polling” risk-limiting audits, which require little more than a description of how the ballots are stored and physical access to the ballots.

    If a state that has trustworthy paper and keeps track of the paper wanted to conduct a risk-limiting audit of the presidential contest this November, it’s not too late to make that happen. Depending on state laws, this might require emergency regulation by the Secretary of State or emergency legislation or executive order. In some places, individual Registrars of Voters could voluntarily audit (not that a majority would).

    Of course, auditing cannot ensure that reported outcomes are correct unless the audit trail of votes is trustworthy, and several states (e.g., GA, PA) have taken steps either backwards or sideways by moving to ballot-marking devices rather than primarily using hand-marked ballots.

    • Thank you, Professor Stark, for taking the time to reply to my comment.
      My impression from what you are saying is that the implementation of risk-limiting audits is, at this point in time, largely dependent on the good will of those who oversee elections in each state. Not an entirely encouraging prospect.
      Hopefully, in time, risk-limiting audits will be required by law in every state. Until then…

  4. Am I missing something?
    But isn’t it a bit late in the game for “Election officials [to] commit to conducting risk-limiting audits” for the 2020 presidential election? Senator Wyden’s PAVE Act was introduced in May of 2019; as far as I can tell, it has not become law. So what’s going incentivize election officials, most of whom are politicians, if I’m not mistaken, to implement risk-limiting audits.
    I am all for risk-limiting audits because I believe it will protect us against any possible irregularities that may occur, as witnessed in 2000, 2004 and 2016. But we are a long way, (please correct me if I’m wrong) from having risk-limiting audits as standard practice in our elections. I certainly hope that it will become so.
    But thank you for trying.

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