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An Improved Approach to Accurate Election Results

The National Election Data Archive
January 27, 2007

Tiered Election Audits: An Improved Approach to Accurate Election Results

A recent report released by the National Election Data Archive entitled "Tiered Election Audits" suggests a tiered tabulation system for audits may be the solution to making sure votes counted more closely match the votes cast.

A bill sponsored by Rush Holt (D-NJ) dealing with election reform is possibly being released on the House floor this week. In light of the increase in contested elections since 2000; the 18,000 missing votes in Sarasota FL in 2006 [1]; the introduction of new voting technology that many reputable scientists insist is flawed [2]; the fact that the testing lab that certified a majority of US voting machines was recently decertified by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission [3], and that two election officials in Ohio were convicted on January 24, 2006 of rigging the 2004 presidential recount [4], concerned citizens are questioning the integrity of our voting systems.

According to Kathy Dopp, President of National Election Data Archive (NEDA), citizen oversight of manual election audits are needed to make sure that votes are counted accurately. Dopp says that "If the goal of elections is to ensure the will of the voters, then election audits should be designed to ensure that voters determine who represents them. However, the US Congress may be planning to require election audits that are designed instead to ensure that a certain percentage of votes are accurately counted. For instance, if Congress requires audits to ensure that 95% of votes are accurately counted, this would allow 5% of votes to be switched wrongly from one candidate to another, leaving any race with less than 10% margins between candidates wide open to vote fraud."

How many ballots have to be hand counted to detect vote counting errors that are big enough to change the outcome of an election? When the margin between candidates is smaller in close elections, a smaller amount of vote miscount can wrongly alter the outcome. Central to the concerns regarding accurate vote counts is whether or not manual counts of a flat 2% of vote counts are sufficient to ensure the integrity of election outcomes or whether higher audit rates are needed when races are close.

According to Dopp, it is not enough to specify election audit percentages. A minimum number of vote counts must be audited because some election races involve fewer total number of vote counts. For example, if one-in-20 vote counts were corrupt, then at least 20 vote counts must be sampled to detect at least one of the corrupt counts. Although a 10% audit of 500 vote counts would sample 50 counts and be sufficient, a 10% audit of 20 vote counts would sample only 2 counts and have little chance of detecting the corrupt vote count.

On January 26th, the National Election Data Archive (NEDA) released a new paper, "Tiered Election Audits" that provides a table to look up the margin between the leading candidates and find a percentage and a minimum audit amount needed to ensure that election outcomes are accurate.

The current practice of a flat 2% audit with no provision for the size of the margin between candidates or minimum audit amount is woefully inadequate according to analyses by both Ron Rivest of M.I.T. and Kathy Dopp of NEDA, among others . "Tiered Election Audits" builds on work that was originally released in July and September 2006 and in January 2007.

In a tiered election audit, the closer the race, the larger the audit size is. Tiered election audits are an effective compromise between audits which require individual calculations for every race to determine audit sample sizes to ensure 99% certainty that each election outcomes is correct; and audits which specify a flat rate of all vote counts to audit but which are insufficient to ensure the integrity of election outcomes in races with close margins or in races involving a small number of total vote counts.

Election integrity experts agree that for audits to be effective, they must be timely, verifiable, transparent, independent, scientific, and mathematically sufficient and used to correct election results. Effective citizen oversight over election audits requires committing the data prior to the audit; public availability of election records; that the public may view both the random selection of vote counts and the manual counts; and durable paper ballots that are verified by voters during elections.

Dopp said that other important requirements to ensure the integrity of election outcomes are included in a set of 14 "Recommendations for Ensuring the Integrity of Elections" by experts in election integrity.

Dopp wants the upcoming 2008 elections to be protected against fraud and error by federal legislation that requires states to conduct sufficient manual audits and allow public oversight of elections.

---- END ----


[1 ] "Questions remain in D-13 under-vote controversy" by Duane Marsteller Herald Staff Writer

[2] "The Machinery of Democracy: Protecting Elections in an Electronic World" by Brennan Voting System Security Task Force

[3] Ciber test labs owners sold off their stock while the US EAC kept it secret that this company that had federally tested a majority of US voting systems was not following quality control procedures and was not recertified. or brot.htm

[4] "2 election workers convicted of rigging '04 presidential recount", M.R. KROPKO, Associated Press

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