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National Issues

Paying Attention: Audits, Recounts, Verification Protocols PDF  | Print |  Email
By Warren Stewart, VoteTrustUSA   
April 16, 2006

Why We Need Them All

“Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom” Thomas Jefferson

Representative democracy depends on confidence in integrity of the process through which the consent of the governed is determined. While challenges to the accuracy of election results are certainly not new and even a cursory review of elections in this country reveals that election fraud is as American as apple pie. However, the widespread use of unverifiable electronic voting machines has raised new and heightened concern that must be addressed. Scrutiny of the election process - eternal vigilance at every level - is the responsibility of the citizens of a democratic society.

There are many efforts underway to increase and enhance public confidence in the election process. No single approach – no new law, regulation, or procedure will accomplish the goal of transparent and verifiable elections on it own. We need a variety of safeguards – a few can be implemented at the federal level, many others will require state efforts, and others will take place at the local level.


Recognizing the limitations and opportunities that exist at each of these different levels will allow a more productive debate and implementation of effective measures to protect the integrity of our elections.

One bill introduced in the current Congress, HR 550, enjoys the committed endorsement of several national election integrity and public interest organizations, including VoteTrustUSA, as well as the co-sponsorship of 178 members of Congress. The language of HR 550 was written with a clear understanding of the constitutional, legislative, and political realities of the 109th Congress in mind. As an amendment of the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), it is intended to clarify and strengthen the ambiguous requirement of HAVA that voting systems “provide a permanent paper record with a manual audit capacity”. HR 550 would require that those permanent records be verified by the voters. With a mandatory random audit providing for a hand count of 2% of the precincts in every state to check the functioning of the voting machines. HR 550 requires public disclosure of voting system software and the prohibition of wireless communications devices in voting machines. It would not eliminate the myriad of concerns felt by American citizens about the election process in this country, nor would it substitute for more robust audits, which must still be legislated and conducted at the state level to verify election results.  HR 550 is only one effort. Many more are underway in individual states and it is only through a broad manifold approach to election protection that some degree of confidence in the election process can be ensured.

Given the de-centralized nature of federal elections in this country, with tremendous autonomy granted constitutionally to state governments in the administration of elections, severe limitations exist on the authority of Congress to mandate election procedures. The Help America Vote Act established asserted a more expansive, though still restricted, role for the federal government in the conduct of elections and has been aptly described as the Marbury v. Madison of federal government involvement in the administration of federal elections.

In a clarification recently issued by Rep. Rush Holt regarding the audit provisions of legislation he has introduced in HR 550, the congressman explained, ”An audit is not the same as a recount. A recount seeks to determine the actual results of an election. By contrast, an audit ensures proper functioning of a voting system by spot-checking its tally against the voter-verified paper records. By testing randomly, an audit deters malfeasance because potential bad actors won’t know which 2% of precincts could be audited. If discrepancies are found, a larger audit follows, and potentially a recount.” The conduct of recounts and the rules governing them are determined by each the of individual states.

There are different types of audit, and they serve different purposes. The purpose of the audit provision in HR 550 is to "ensure proper functioning of a voting system by spot-checking its tally against the voter-verified paper records." The purpose is not to determine the winner of a contested election or to verify the results of the election. The audit provision of HR 550 will not verify the total vote count and this was not its intention. A different type of sampling is required to verify the outcome of the election. This is the purpose of a recount, according to Rep. Holt, "A recount seeks to determine the actual results of an election."

That being said, there can, and must be, audits specifically designed to determine the outcome of the election, which may be more aptly called a statewide verification protocol. The development of such verification protocols are in progress in Oregon, California, and other states. This is not the purpose of the audit provision of HR 550, or of any federal legislation. We must not rely only on recounts to determine the actual results of an election we must have an audit process that serves to determine the accuracy of the election results.

It is essential to distinguish the type of audit, what its limitations are, and what its intended purpose is before debating the merits of any particular protocol and its effectiveness. An audit protocol cannot be evaluated without consideration of the purpose and what one is trying to determine with the particular protocol.

Efforts underway to increase scrutiny on Election Day are also critical to the overall effort to ensure confidence in elections. Poll-watching, poll-working, the organized gathering of precinct-level results, recount readiness – these are all important initiatives that demand the support and active engagement of every citizen concerned about the integrity of our elections. 
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