Friday, November 9, 2012

Pre-electoral audits, a missing piece in the integrity of the US election system

The 2000 elections were a turning point in the way elections are administered in the US. After the contested race between Al Gore and George W. Bush had to be decided by the US Supreme Court almost a month after Election Day, numerous initiatives such as the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), the creation of the Electoral Assistance Commission, and the proliferation of watchdog and electoral transparency groups, dramatically improved the electoral landscape of the US.

In spite the progress, there is still room for improvement. Audits, a crucial step to certify the correctness of election outcomes, are still scarce and do not cover, in most cases, the electoral process in its entirety.  

At the moment, audits standards and procedures refer mostly to the process of hand-counting a sufficiently large random sample of the cast paper ballots and contrasting it with the digital record electronic voting machines provide. Although post-electoral audits are important, instead of focusing only in detecting fraud, a greater emphasis should be placed on preventing malfeasance of any kind of error from happening.

According to Verified Voting, the most important benefits of a thorough audit processes are:
  • Revealing when recounts are necessary to verify election outcomes.
  • Finding error whether accidental or intention.
  • Deterring fraud.
  • Providing for continuous improvement in the conduct of elections.
  • Promoting public confidence in elections.
Voting technologies, which continues to gain popularity across the 3,600 jurisdictions of the US, provide numerous opportunities to review the components of the voting systems, and guarantee that the outcome of the electoral processes exactly reflect the will of voters. Those opportunities should be exploited. From the configuration of the electoral roll and electronic pollbooks, passing through the creation of voting instruments, source code of voting machines, and post electoral audit, every step of the election should be audited.

During the 2012 general elections, more than half of the states conducted post-election audits, however, authorities have not agreed on how to enforce pre-electoral audits. The focus of authorities has been on certifying that the technology in use complies with the minimum standards, but little or no attention has been given to each election and especially to the numerous steps of the electoral cycle preceding the event.

As voting technologies continue to spread around the world, a considerable body of knowledge is being developed. The US should take advantage of this by sharing experiences with Brazil, Belgium, the Philippines, Venezuela or Estonia, and every other nation trying to improve election administration through the adoption of technological solutions. Venezuela stands out as an example of what can be done in terms of pre-electoral audits. In a recent article published, available at, Eugenio Martinez (a seasoned Venezuelan reporter) points out that for the Presidential Elections in Venezuela, before Election Day, more than 17 audits were performed to certify all elements of the voting platform worked properly. This was one of the main reasons why a contested election, in the midst of a heated campaign and a highly polarized political environment, ended with immediate official results being accepted by all parties minutes after polls closed. Reviewing the Venezuelan voting platform and developing ties with Venezuelan electoral authorities and its technology provider Smartmatic could be a great start. The US cannot afford another electoral meltdown as it has all the means to avoid it.