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Bipartisan Principles for Election Audits

The U.S. election system has evolved rapidly over the past two decades. How, when, and where voters may cast ballots has evolved significantly since the 2000 election. These productive expansions to voter access have been paired with promising security measures like paper ballots, inter-state cooperation on voter registration, upgraded cybersecurity, and official audits. Audits are nothing new, and when the “audit” meets certain basic, bipartisan standards, they are the primary means of increasing confidence in an election’s legitimacy.

Election officials have been conducting audits in a bipartisan manner with broad institutional trust for decades. In recent years, a push to increase the frequency and effectiveness of audits strengthened their ability to shore up election integrity. In 2014, the Presidential Commission on Election Administration recommended that states conduct regular audits of voting equipment; in 2020, the Bipartisan Policy Center further recommended that states conduct pre-certification audits wherein all types of ballots are subject to review.

States have made significant progress in response to these recommendations and in 2020 the vast majority of states conducted traditional or risk-limiting post-election audits. Every state requires an official review to identify discrepancies and confirm the election’s results in the days and weeks that follow. Audits are but one component of the vast canvassing and certification process. The foremost goal of an audit is to assess whether an election was fair and accurate (or, if conducted in the pre-election period, to ensure that election technology is functioning properly).

Audits and reviews happen at each stage of the voting process. Local election officials conduct logic and accuracy testing, which is a check of voting systems before voting begins to ensure proper functionality. They perform official audits, which range from Risk Limiting Audits (RLAs)—highly statistically significant tabulation reviews—to full recounts of a subset of ballots, usually a percentage of precincts within a jurisdiction. When results are close and in accordance with state law, election officials may also do recounts.

These reviews were in place during the 2020 election. When considered in tandem with the nearly universal use of paper ballots and expanded cybersecurity measures, 2020 was the most secure election in U.S. history. Even still, this year an increasing number of states are considering additional extralegal, unofficial election reviews examining the presidential election.

Politics and potential motives aside, the rise of unofficial election reviews prompts a need for a reckoning—begging the questions: What is the purpose of audits? How should audits be conducted? What makes an audit deserving of public trust?

The Bipartisan Policy Center’s Task Force on Elections is uniquely suited to answer these questions. Comprised of politically and geographically diverse state and local election administrators, the task force inserts balance and objectivity into some of the most difficult questions facing the American electorate today. The perspective of election officials is unparalleled in its impartiality, fair-mindedness, and precision (after all, it’s those running elections who know best how they work).

American democracy relies on a functional and trusted election ecosystem; a functional and trusted election ecosystem relies on audits. They should be performed with the respect, candor, and transparency that they deserve. In this spirit, the Bipartisan Policy Center Task Force on Elections unanimously endorses the following set of principles for effective and trustworthy election audits.

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The Bipartisan Policy Center Task Force on Elections

The Bipartisan Policy Center strongly believes that better policy comes from reasoned deliberation and compromise. When it comes to election administration, policymakers need to hear from those who administer elections.

BPC’s Task Force on Elections includes 28 state and local election officials from 20 states devoted to making meaningful improvements to U.S. elections. This report builds on the task force’s recommendations made in Logical Election Policy and Improving the Voting Experience After 2020.

The task force unanimously endorses the set of eight bipartisan principles for election audits contained in this report.

The task force membership includes:

Bipartisan Principles for Election Audits

  1. Audits should occur after every election and be explicitly authorized in state law.

    State laws must dictate how and when audits should occur. Unofficial, extralegal election reviews risk the security of election materials and do more harm than good to civic engagement and voter confidence. For maximum security, states should require audits after every election.

    Regularized audits that occur within the statutory framework build confidence in election results and demonstrate the high efficacy with which election offices operate. Furthermore, though voter fraud is extremely rare, mistakes do occasionally happen in ballot processing and tabulation. Regular audits of all parts of the voting process identify even the most benign mistakes, enabling election administrators to address discrepancies and develop trustworthy official results.

  2. Audits should have a thorough, pre-established methodology.

    Audits are highly technical operations and, given the consequential nature of their results, they should be conducted with a clear, replicable methodology. This methodology should be made public well ahead of the audit so that candidates, elected officials, and members of the public understand how the audit will be run and what it will accomplish.

    Like any good research or experiment, audits must be able to be repeated with consistent results. Just as errors can happen during the voting process, errors can also happen during an audit. If an audit without a clear methodology identifies significant discrepancies but cannot be replicated, there’s no way of knowing if the discrepancies occurred during the audit or if there is a bigger problem at hand.

    No election audit should begin as a forensic audit. A forensic audit is narrower than an election audit as it is following a thread from an anomaly back into its source. Before forensic tools may be applied, a predicate of some anomaly or indication of wrongdoing is necessary. An anomaly is not losing an election, or even a very close election. Close elections are resolved through recounts.

  3. Audits should follow established security best practices and be conducted with trusted technology and tools.

    There are multiple types of audits that inspect various parts of the election ecosystem. Depending on the type of audit in play, election workers might handle voting and tabulation equipment, electronic poll books, ballots and ballot materials, sensitive voter data, voter databases, or other key election peripherals. Election technology must maintain the highest standards for physical and cybersecurity both during and after elections. If technology is breached, unaccounted for, or handled by unauthorized personnel the security of that device’s hardware and software is cast into doubt.

    Similarly, the physical security of paper ballots and voting materials must be maintained at all times in order for the validity of any future audits, recounts, or judicial proceedings to be maintained. Audits must be conducted in accordance with the latest physical and cybersecurity best practices, from simple protections like not having shared passwords to sophisticated data encryption.

  4. Election officials must maintain custody of ballots and other election peripherals in accordance with federal and state law and judicial standards for admissible evidence.

    Election officials have established chain of custody procedures that ensure ballots remain in a state of security that make them admissible as evidence in court (or in an additional audit or recount) should any anomaly be discovered during the audit process. When the chain of custody is broken upon handing ballots to an unauthorized entity, the authenticity of the ballots is immediately suspect. Should an anomaly be discovered, it is essential that all election materials have a documented chain of custody so that the problem can be resolved without disruption.

    Should legislators subpoena ballots or other election materials for an election review, that review should take place at the election office in concert with the local election official. Furthermore, federal law and many state laws require election officials to maintain custody of ballots for 22 months after an election. In practice, this means that election officials must be involved in any post-election recount or audit to comply with federal statute.

  5. Audits should be fully funded by state or local public resources.

    Audits are intended to objectively assess the accuracy and integrity of the election. Audits provide confidence that the voting system worked as intended and provided an accurate count of ballots cast. Even if a minor discrepancy is identified, voters can have confidence that the problem was found and resolved in accordance with existing laws and integrity standards.

    Outside funding sources for this inherently governmental function inevitably fail when it comes to increasing voter confidence. This is especially true when funding comes from candidates or parties on the ballot, as these actors are incapable of assessing election performance objectively.

    Rather than audits that occur at the whim of candidates, parties, or citizen groups, the task force recommends that audits be a regular feature of every election and that the introduction of outside actors into the process not be allowed. Losing candidates who have genuine reason to believe that there was an error in ballot counting should seek a recount, as permitted by law in 39 states.1 Typically, candidates who request a recount are required to finance it, with funds returned to the candidate if the recount changes the election’s results. Critically, while the candidate may finance the recount, it is performed by the designated election authority in accordance with state and federal chain of custody, security, and transparency requirements.

    Whereas extra-legal audits cast doubt onto the election process and risk permanently damaging voters’ confidence (regardless of the audit’s result), regularized audits that occur within the existing statutory framework are more than sufficient to dispel reasonable suspicions of election illegitimacy. Regularized audits must be fully supported by government resources—including funding for the audit itself, and training and support for the local election officials who will be performing them.

  6. Audits should be transparent and open to the public for observation.

    Accountability and transparency go hand in hand. Regardless of how well an audit is run, its results aren’t likely to be trusted if it occurs behind closed doors. Pre- and post-election audits should have detailed observation procedures and transparency measures to achieve three objectives:

    – To inform and educate members of the public about how audits work.
    – To ensure the audit is conducted in accordance with the pre-established methodology and existing laws.
    – To ensure that those conducting audits are accountable for any mistakes or malfeasance during the audit process.

    Together, these objectives comprise what we refer to as contextualized transparency: not only providing the opportunity to observe election procedures, but ensuring that those observing have all the information they need to understand what steps are being taken and how security is maintained throughout the process. Often, those seeking to increase transparency will simply live stream audit processes. However, transparency measures that prioritize simple exposure over informed engagement risk stoking more misinformation than understanding. Providing sufficient context is central to effective transparency measures.

    Like an audit’s methodology, transparency measures should be clear and publicly available well before the audit takes place.

  7. Audit results should be clearly communicated to the public after their completion.

    Audits must be both effective and trustworthy. Unfortunately, even the most effective audits performed in accordance with all established integrity and security best practices do not guarantee public trust. Rather, the key to garnering public trust is how audits are communicated. While individual election offices only have so much control over how their message is received in a mass media environment, clearly communicating all audit findings—as well as any steps taken to address found discrepancies—can help proactively dispel concerns about the voting process. For example, local election officials might distribute a press release after an audit is completed informing the public about accuracy rates.

    To help in this effort, states should provide local election offices with the resources they need to not only conduct audits, but to engage in the increasingly communications-focused side of election administration. This includes both providing materials to assist in communicating complex audit procedures to the general public (including websites, toolkits, and explainers), as well as sufficient resources to support hiring additional communications staff as needed at the local level.

  8. Audits should take place before results are certified.

    After every election, local and state election offices begin a process called “canvassing” to confirm, and ultimately certify, the election’s results. Typically, results cannot be changed after they are certified. The task force recommends that states expand the canvassing and certification period to at least 14 days, allowing enough time for audits to occur before results are final.

    While pre-certification audits are ideal, some states will continue to perform audits after certification. As audits must both identify any errors and provide a means of rectifying them, post-certification audits conducted in accordance with state law should include a means of amending results (for example, by triggering a recount) if significant discrepancies are identified. Regardless, results should be considered final by the federal Safe Harbor deadline 35 days after the election to ensure a smooth transfer of power based on mutual trust in the election’s results.

A Call for Evidence-Based Election Audits

The function of audits is not to appease a losing candidate. Rather, audits provide a continual means of verifying the integrity of U.S. elections. The Bipartisan Policy Center and the Task Force on Elections have ardently supported audits for years.

There is a clear appetite to expand election audits for future cycles among voters and elected officials. American elections are secure and legitimate, and yet public distrust of the voting process is itself a threat to democracy and should be addressed with the seriousness it deserves. Audits are a legitimate means of shoring up election legitimacy. Elected officials truly seeking to improve election performance will ensure that any proposed audits meet each of the eight principles contained herein as unanimously endorsed by the Bipartisan Policy Center Task Force on Elections.

End Notes:

1 According to the National Conference on State Legislatures, “In Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, recounts must be requested via a petition signed by a specified number of registered voters.” In 12 of the 39 states, the margin of victory must fall within a set threshold in order for a candidate to request a recount.

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