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Elections should be grounded in evidence, not blind trust

Philip Stark, professor of statistics | January 5, 2021

Co-authored by Edward Perez, global director of technology development at the OSET Institute, and J. Alex Halderman, a professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Michigan. 

President Donald Trump’s attempt to pressure Georgia election officials to “find” votes he didn’t win is keeping election integrity in the spotlight. Tomorrow’s Senate runoffs will determine which party controls the chamber, and there’s a high likelihood that this round of voting will also be declared illegitimate by the losers. 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.

Currently, only four states (Colorado, Nevada, Rhode Island, and Virginia) have statutory requirements for risk-limiting audits, the most rigorous type of post-election audits. But evidence-based elections are possible in all states with existing voting technology by following a few steps in a publicly transparent, verifiable manner. 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.

To conduct risk-limiting audits properly, jurisdictions must keep better track of ballots than they might otherwise. Election officials who have conducted RLAs report greater confidence in their own operations, partly because they know where every ballot is. By contrast, 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.

Moving to evidence-based elections requires public education, funding, and training for election officials. If the general voting population uses hand-marked paper ballots, Georgia and many other states have everything they need to conduct evidence-based elections except laws and regulations. Other states may need new voting equipment. Well designed, publicly owned, open-source voting technology could save taxpayers millions within a few years, alleviate concerns that private corporations are using their products and services to alter election outcomes, and speed up a national transition to efficient evidence-based elections.

A secure election gets the right outcome and convinces the public. No matter what candidate they vote for, every American should be concerned about gaps in the evidence to support the reported outcome. Official assurances without public evidence do not persuade skeptics, and a lack of public confidence in the machinery of elections is an existential threat to our democracy. Let’s make sure all states adopt evidence-based elections with hand-marked paper ballots, demonstrably secure chain of custody, thorough canvasses, compliance audits, and risk-limiting audits. That way, we all win.