This article appears in VICE Magazine's Algorithms issue, which investigates the rules that govern our society, and what happens when they're broken.
On the night of November 9, 2018, three days after the midterm elections, a group of protesters gathered outside the Supervisor of Elections office in Broward, Florida’s second-largest county and one of its most Democratic-leaning. The night before, a video had been posted to Twitter allegedly showing ballots being transported in private cars, and each time a truck pulled into the parking bay attached to the SOE’s office, the crowd took it as further proof that the election was being stolen.
For some, the fraud was so obvious and brazen that it almost defied logic. “The Democrats had their ace here with these 68,000 votes,” said a woman with a five-foot American flag, referring to the constantly updating vote total released by the SOE. “Miraculously! Today’s Friday. The election was Tuesday.”
The stakes felt especially high, with the margins for three statewide races (U.S. senator, governor, and agricultural commissioner) all below .5 percent. According to Florida’s mandatory recount law, similar to the ones in 19 other states, these margins would automatically trigger the first full, statewide recount in history, and the protesters were there to stop what they saw as an influx of fraudulent ballots being snuck in during the recount.
The only problem was that the recount hadn’t even begun. Broward was still receiving overseas, provisional, and absentee ballots, of which it had a backlog of at least 70,000, and its unofficial results weren’t due until the following day. But the Supervisor of Elections hadn’t publicized the most basic information about what was happening, and in this vacuum of official information, propaganda spread quickly (created and amplified, without evidence, by Republican politicians).
As the week wore on, the situation in Florida went from bad to worse. During the two weeks from Election Day until when the vote was certified, rejected ballots were confused with accepted ones, vote-counting machines malfunctioned, and at least six federal lawsuits were filed, with one county missing the state-mandated recount deadline altogether.
This November, given the stakes of the election and the number of competitive races across the country, a similar election nightmare is almost guaranteed. Though the presidential race currently looks like a blowout, it could easily tighten in key swing states during the next few months. And even if Joe Biden scores a decisive win, control of the Senate could be determined by a few thousand votes in Maine, Arizona, or Colorado. There are also roughly 28 House races that the Cook Political Report rates as toss-ups, not to mention elections for state legislatures, which will be in charge of drawing new electoral districts based off the results of this year’s Census.
Every cycle, there are close races (in 2018, nine House seats were decided by a margin of less than 1 percent), but they often go unnoticed. The election is over, and voters want to move on. That’s unlikely to be the case this time around. Not only is the country exceptionally polarized, but the coronavirus has created chaos over who can vote and how. Already, pandemic-related voting rights issues in at least three states—Alabama, Wisconsin, and Texas—have made their way to the Supreme Court, and that was just for the primaries. For the general, Republicans are aiming to deploy 50,000 “poll monitors,” while the Democrats plan to have 600 lawyers on-hand.
With states already seeing record numbers of absentee ballots, which are especially prone to being thrown out, it’s almost inevitable that the results will be disputed, However, even under the best of circumstances, recounts are divisive, expensive, laborious, and rarely change the outcome of an election.
Take Florida in 2018. That year, after the recounted races went to machine re-tabulation, where all the ballots were fed through the scanners again, three still had a margin below .25 percent, triggering a manual recount of undervotes, overvotes, and write-ins. However, after officials discovered that they had misplaced 2,335 ballots, Broward submitted its original results anyway.
Another county, Palm Beach, didn’t have voting machines capable of running multiple recounts simultaneously. Even working 24/7 for five days, there wasn’t enough time to re-tabulate the 585,117 votes for all three statewide races, let alone for a state representative race, whose margin was 37 votes. Here, a recount may have actually changed the outcome, but the other elections were given priority. Ultimately, though, the point became moot when the county’s 11-year-old machines overheated on day five, invalidating the recount results of roughly 174,000 ballots.
In the end, the greatest vote swing was in the Senate race, where Democrat Bill Nelson gained 274 votes. By the standards of a recount, this was a dramatic change. FairVote, a nonpartisan nonprofit advocating electoral reforms, analyzed 15 statewide recounts between 2000 and 2015 and found that the median shift was 219 votes. Still, Nelson lost by a margin of over 10,000.
Verifying the integrity of an election doesn’t have to be this fraught and time-consuming. Unlike the sloppy, exhausting drama of a recount, risk-limiting audits offer a way to resolve election disputes that’s cheaper, more efficient, and less likely to lead to the meltdowns and conspiracy theories that plagued the 2018 Florida recount. And though they’re technical and unsexy, they’re one of the most effective and bipartisan election reforms available.
A risk-limiting audit (RLA) randomly selects a sub-sample of ballots and verifies that what is marked on the paper actually matches the result that was recorded for that ballot. The closer the race, the more votes are recounted, and the process continues until there’s a “high statistical degree of certainty” that the original results are correct. In small races with tight margins, the sample size may include every vote, but it’s typically much smaller than a full recount.
In a video produced by the Colorado Secretary of State, which began conducting mandatory statewide RLAs in 2017, a professor compares the process to tasting a tablespoon of soup to see if it is too salty. “A tablespoon is enough,” he said, “and it doesn’t matter if it’s a one-quart sauce pan or a 50-gallon cauldron of soup.”
It’s a clever idea, but is it too clever? Recounts are elegant in the simplicity of their design: you take every ballot and count it again. Especially in the heat of an election dispute, when voters are more likely to believe the system is fair only if their candidate won, are administrators really able to offer reassurances by randomly pulling ballots and claiming a “high statistical degree of certainty?”
It depends on the election administrator. Elections in Colorado, like in most states, are run by the Secretary of State, a position currently held by Jena Griswold, who was elected in 2019. She’s made transparency a priority, starting with a public dice roll to determine the 20-digit number used to randomly select ballots. Her office also posts the technical details of the RLA on its website and trains local media members in how the process operates. “Risk-limiting audits are on the news here,” said Griswold.
In addition, some election administrators, like Amber McReynolds, the Director of Elections for Denver from 2011 to 2018, also give tours to candidates, who are able to request recounts after the election if they dispute the result. “They’d all be able to come watch,” she said, “and see that there was a clear process, it worked, and there wasn’t a need to go further.”
Ironically, auditing a sample of ballots can also be more inclusive and accurate than recounting the whole batch.
Would that every state were Colorado. In Broward County in 2018, by the time the recount started, the well was already poisoned.
But the difference between Colorado and Florida isn’t just one of communication. Colorado citizens are automatically registered to vote, and before each election, the state mails everyone on the rolls a ballot, which can be turned in and counted well before Election Day. As a result, voters never experience the chaos endemic to elections elsewhere. “They don’t wait in line for five hours,” said McReynolds. “They don’t have a machine break in front of them. Those are really the things, I think, that destroy voter confidence.” Plus, Griswold said, Colorado doesn’t audit only the top-ballot races. It can also verify elections that are particularly close or contested, which further reassure voters that the outcome is legitimate.
Ironically, auditing a sample of ballots can also be more inclusive and accurate than recounting the whole batch. “When you do a recount, there are miscounts just because of human error,” Griswold said. In addition, audits include ballots that a recount may exclude. For example, under Michigan law, a box of ballots won’t be recounted if the seal is broken or if the number of ballots inside doesn’t exactly match what was recorded.
This provision is well-intentioned but doesn’t necessarily combat the problem effectively, said Ginny Vander Roest, a former elections administrator in Michigan and a Senior Election Implementation Manager at VotingWorks, a non-partisan non-profit aiming to make voting more secure and affordable. “If someone tampered with that ballot container, then why would you recount it? Of course, you’d want to figure out if that actually happened, but that’s something [the law] doesn’t provide for,” she said.
As a result, ballots can be disqualified en masse, like in the 2016 presidential race, when votes in 60 percent of the precincts in Detroit were thrown out. “This is not unique to Michigan,” added Monica Childers, a technologist at VotingWorks. “All states have these sorts of carve-outs and caveats.”
Increasingly, though, states are following the audit path that Colorado has forged. Political parties in Kansas, Wyoming, and Alaska all hired McReynolds to oversee their primaries. “They said, ‘We want the best of the best election processes,’” she said. “And I said, ‘Okay, well that includes an RLA.’”
RLAs or RLA pilots are now required or provided for by state laws in Nevada, Virginia, Georgia, Indiana, California, Ohio, Oregon, Washington, Rhode Island (which audited its recent presidential primary in three hours) and Michigan, which, in May, conducted an RLA with 277 jurisdictions despite having to train all of the election administrators remotely.
However, barriers still exist. Because an RLA checks the physical ballot against the record of the ballot that was counted, it can only be implemented in states with a paper trail. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, a non-partisan law and public policy institute, that requirement excludes at least some jurisdictions in eight states this November: Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Kansas, Kentucky, New Jersey, Tennessee, and Indiana.
Moreover, just because audits have been proven to work doesn’t mean they’ll be adopted. For example, between 2011 and 2013, California conducted a RLA pilot program. The subsequent report called it a success, as opposed to the manual recount, which “provided little statistical evidence that the election outcomes were correctly tallied by the voting system, despite requiring substantially more ballots to be hand-counted and examined."
Still, RLAs in California are only recommended, not required. “It’s a proven process, but it’s not proven in the fact that legislators understand it,” said Vander Roest. “They’re used to their recount rules.”
Even when politicians are on board the RLA train, it’s not always a smooth ride. Recently, the Florida House and Senate unanimously passed a law allowing counties to conduct recounts using the same equipment that they use for audits. Afterward, Verified Voting, a nonpartisan organization dedicated to election security, wrote an open letter to the governor urging him to veto the legislation.
Not only are the sanctioned machines not properly certified, the authors argued, but “this bill does not require that recounts look at the actual paper ballots—the legal ballots of record. Rather it relies on hackable retabulation and digital images because the sanctioned machines aren’t secure.” The letter was signed by two former secretaries of state, a former ambassador, and academics from Stanford, Berkeley, Harvard, Yale, Brown, and MIT. Still, the governor signed the bill.
This episode emphasizes that there’s no easy fix to an election system. Risk-limiting audits are an effective way to reform—or even replace—traditional recounts, but only if they’re implemented carefully. This new law in Florida is scheduled to take effect after the presidential election, on January 1, 2021, meaning that, should the state undertake a recount in November, it will probably go as smoothly as it did in 2018. “Florida has had more than its share of election recount problems in the past,” reads the Verified Voting letter. “Please don’t expose the state to new problems on your watch.”
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