Rhode Island Takes Important Step to Secure Elections with Post-Election Audits

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  • John Marion, david vance
Adopts New Procedure to Check Election Results as Threats Increase

Last night, the General Assembly passed important legislation to increase security of Rhode Island elections with post-election audits to ensure the accuracy of vote counts. The bills, once they are signed by Governor Gina Raimondo who has publicly supported them, will phase in the use of an innovative procedure called risk-limiting post-election audits. These audits serve as a check on the initial machine counts reported on election night, and confirm that our election results are correct.

“Rhode Island was ahead of the curve when we started using paper ballots in 1998,” said John Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, “and with this legislation, we remain ahead of the curve by adopting the most advanced type of post-election audits available.”

“Americans expect and deserve clean elections and in the wake of Russian attacks on our election infrastructure during the 2016 elections. It is vitally important that other states follow Rhode Island’s lead,” said Susannah Goodman, Common Cause Director of Voting Integrity. “The number of potential threats to our elections and their level of sophistication is increasing so it is even more important to perform risk-limiting audits to safeguard the integrity of our elections.”

Common Cause first introduced risk-limiting audit legislation during the 2013 General Assembly session. While piloted in several states, including California and Ohio, only Colorado currently requires risk-limiting audits. Risk-limiting audits reduce the risk of certifying an incorrect outcome while minimizing the workload for election administrators.

“Post-election audits are the best safeguard to making sure that votes are being counted as cast,” said Representative Edith Ajello (D-Providence), the House sponsor. “My community saw a simple administrative error almost turn into an incorrect election result,” added Senate sponsor, Senator James Sheehan (D-North Kingstown), “and this legislation will help assure voters that a system is in place to catch and correct future problems.”

The audits will begin as soon as September 2018. Rhode Island becomes the 32nd state to require post-election audits, and only the second state to require risk-limiting audits. 

Passage came after two Rhode Island communities suffered from administrative errors in the November 2016 election that led to incorrect machine counts on election night.  Because the results were obviously wrong, election officials reprogrammed the scanners and recounted the ballots.  The correct results were reported, but the situation demonstrated the need for a manual check on the results of machine-counted ballots. 

Common Cause Rhode Island worked on this initiative with local allies, including the League of Women Voters of Rhode Island and the Rhode Island Affiliate of the ACLU, as well as national organizations including Verified Voting and the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. 

The move to robust post-election audits is occurring amidst an ongoing scandal involving Russian interference in federal US elections. The procedure will ensure to a high level of confidence that machine miscounts caused by programming errors or even malicious software will be caught and corrected. 

Although there is documented interference by the Russian government in statewide voter registration databases during the last election cycle, a report released by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence on January 6 stated that no vote tallies had been hacked and changed.  The report did state that local election boards had been infiltrated.  Experts  have warned that it is likely only a matter of time before our election tallies are attacked.  Tampering with elections is not difficult – even if the voting machines are not connected to the internet.  A determined attacker – such as a nation state – can avail themselves of tools to “jump the air gap” like the Stuxnet virus and infect machines that are not connected to the Internet.   A robust post-election audit will be able to detect -with a high level of confidence – that a change in the election outcome has occurred.   

On the national level, Senators Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) have introduced legislation which would provide funds to the states to improve election security.