Colorado’s New Vote Audit Sets Example for the Nation

Colorado's New Vote Audit Sets Example for the Nation

Colorado is taking an important step this week to ensure that votes are being accurately tallied.

If you’re among those Americans concerned about the vulnerability of our elections to cyber-saboteurs – and you certainly should be – you’ll want to pay close attention to what election officials in Colorado will be doing from today through Saturday.

After years of study, including local pilot programs, the Centennial State will run the first-ever statewide “risk-limiting” audit, a careful and comprehensive review of ballots cast in the Nov. 7 election that will verify beyond a reasonable doubt that the candidates who appear to have won actually got the most votes.

The exercise “will provide assurance to voters, to citizens, that the machines are counting accurately and that people can have confidence in the results,” Colorado Secretary of State Wayne Williams told reporters on Wednesday. “That’s very important to (voter) participation” in future elections.

Election administrators nationwide are closely following Colorado’s audit. Rhode Island, whose governor recently signed legislation mandating risk-limiting audits, has sent observers to monitor the Colorado process; voting rights advocates, including Common Cause, are lobbying legislatures across the country to follow Colorado’s lead.

“The risk-limiting audit is one example of Colorado’s commitment to election integrity,” said Elizabeth Steele, elections director for Colorado Common Cause. The state already has some of the nation’s most voter-friendly election laws. More than 90 percent of Coloradans vote by mail and have until a week before the election to register; those who choose to vote in person can register all the way up to and including Election Day.

Like their counterparts across the country, Colorado election officials routinely test their voting machines and tabulators before and after each election. But with reports of possible foreign interference in the 2016 election, including attempts by hackers to penetrate state election systems, it’s clear the old way of checking reported results “wasn’t good enough,” said Matt Crane, clerk of Arapahoe County, Colorado’s most populous jurisdiction.

Williams and Crane were among a group of election administrators and consultants who outlined the risk-limiting process during a conference call on Wednesday. While Colorado is the first state to use the audits statewide, New Mexico runs a similar process in selected contests.

The Colorado audit will compare a randomly-selected group of the paper ballots that Coloradans cast last week in each county against the way those votes were recorded on the county’s vote counting system.

The number of ballots to be checked fluctuates depending on the number cast in the county and the closeness of the reported results. Each county sets a risk limit – the level of risk that officials are willing to accept that the original count did not reflect the true winner. Put another way, a risk limit of 5 percent means there is a 95 percent chance that if the originally reported outcome is wrong, the audit will detect it and lead to a full hand count to correct the error.

As the audit progresses, it will expand until there is enough evidence that the outcome correctly reflects the actual vote.

The officials acknowledged that the process depends on each county keeping ballots secure and in the proper order, so that they can be certain that they’re comparing each audited ballot with the way that ballot was recorded by their counting equipment.

Philip Stark, an associate dean at the University of California who has been advising Colorado officials, said local tests of the audit process in previous elections have not found large errors.