Auditing the Election Ecosystem
Working Paper No.:  85
Date Published:  2009-08-10


R. Michael Alvarez, California Institute of Technology

Lonna Rae Atkeson, University of New Mexico

Thad E. Hall, University of Utah


Election administration is a highly complex process that involves multiple actors all working to achieve the goal of running an effective election. One critical technique for gathering the performance data needed to improve election management is through comprehensive evaluations, which we refer to as election ecosystem audits (EEA). These audits are evaluations of an election from start to finish. Accomplishing this goal requires election officials coordinating the efforts of contractors—from ballot printers to voting machine companies—third parties, like the US Postal Service who transport absentee ballots and the entities who agree to house polling places, and the poll workers who actually implement the election at the polls. Managing this vast enterprise requires election officials to evaluate their election activities so that they can improve the implementation of the process over time.

This type of evaluation uses both existing data that are collected as a matter of course in the election process as well as new data that are specifically generated for this purpose. Post election voting machine performance audits are an example of this latter type.

Currently these data are generated over the course of an election, but are not examined for evaluative purposes. These data should feed into the election management process, so that the election officials can use the data to improve the process for the next election. Training, procedures, and processes can be modified to address shortfalls that were identified during the EEA. Thus, the point of EEA is to provide a feedback mechanism to improve the performance of the local election administration.

The steps below are designed to show how an ecosystem audit works. These audits do require planning, but also provide quite effective data for improving election management. The analysis of this audit process comes from a review of election audits in New Mexico and Utah. Below is a step-by-step process for conducting a complete audit, with a special focus on post-election machine performance audits. Some type of post election machine performance audits have been implemented in 18 states to verify voting systems and it is becoming a more common practice to ensure election integrity and instill voter confidence.

In most states, these audits are relatively limited in scope and election officials are typically the individuals who are required to conduct the audits of their own actions. Only in Washington State does a third-party, the county auditor, conduct the audit. Interestingly, half of the states that implement audits do not require audit results to be formally reported. Even in states with reporting requirements, the state may not issue a formal report that details all of the audit results and any problems that were identified. Therefore, we make recommendations on procedural practices for conducting post election audits. However, some states have requirements for audits that are triggered only when certain events occur and some states have election audit requirements that are only required for electronic voting but not for optical scan or other paper ballots.


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