Recently, President Donald Trump said that Vice President Mike Pence will head up a commission to investigate voting irregularities and possible fraud, especially related to voter registration. Examining elections to identify fraud requires in-depth election audits—a methodological examination of the processes and procedures that states and localities use to manage their elections, with all of their complexities. An audit looks at the process used to implement each aspect of an election, the personnel and how they are trained to implement the processes, and only then examining the bottom line—the numbers and the performance of the election.
In our books Confirming Elections and Evaluating Elections, my collaborators and I wrote about how to audit a popular election and how to evaluate election administration. An audit is not the "morning after" recounts that were requested by Green Party candidate Jill Stein and others in the aftermath of the 2016 election. Recounts of cast ballots tell nothing about the electoral process. An audit requires evaluating the safeguards in place for the entire election—from registration through voting and ballot tabulation—and determining how well procedures were followed and how things can be improved.
How would a full-scale national election audit work? Let’s start with the issue that has been discussed the most: voter registration. An election audit is not just about seeing who is registered twice. Audits examine the security of a state’s voter registration database to ensure it is protected from hacking. An audit would review the documented procedures for adding or removing a voter to the database and consider how a state is regularly matching its voter registration database against other key databases, such as the Social Security Death Index, a state’s Department of Motor Vehicles, or the National Change of Address system.
Critically, an audit would also examine how voter registration works on Election Day. We know that there are people registered in more than one state. An audit can evaluate the procedures that are implemented by poll workers to identify and authenticate themselves when they check in on Election Day and whether the poll workers are appropriately trained.
In work we have done in New Mexico, Utah, and other jurisdictions, we have audited various aspects of Americans elections. Understanding a state’s individual processes is critical for knowing the risk of fraud. For example, states that have clear processes and procedures, conduct regular database matching, have well-trained staff and poll workers, and conduct internal reviews of their work should have less voter registration fraud than more lax jurisdictions.
Once the procedural component of the process has been evaluated, then the actual voter registration system can be examined. This check might ensure that the system does not contain duplicate registrations, that matches with appropriate databases do not show errors (improper removals or a failure to remove registrants), and that people who would seem to have moved have received all of the appropriate mailings.
A similar process can be used to audit Election Day activities and by-mail voting. The key question is not whether the vote totals match up if you could the votes a second time. Instead, it is whether every polling place followed the correct procedures for every aspect of the election and whether the poll workers were appropriately trained on how these procedures work.
In 6 Tips for Conducting Election Audits, the Election Assistance Commission makes recommendations for audits that mirror the work we have done in this area. For example, in Confirming Elections, we discuss the benefits of creating workflow diagrams that show the processes being audited and of having rigorous security and chain of custody procedures. The EAC also focuses on end-to-end audits that can identify problems at any point in the election process.
We should not be surprised that people see issues with American elections—such as people on multiple voting rolls—that cause some people concern. It has long been known that elections are an underfunded part of our democracy. However, Congress could provide funding to incentivize state and local election officials to collect the data required for fraud identifying audits. Election audits can routinely be conducted by third parties—as is recommended under auditing standards—on behalf of state or local election offices. Additional resources would ensure that issues identified by any audits could be addressed promptly and properly, so that there are fewer concerns in the future.
Although election audits are costly, they are a scientifically sound way to measure risk and identify actual fraudulent activities as well as potential election administration problems. As long as people are unsure of election administration procedures and well-publicized doubts about the integrity of American elections exist, it would serve democracy well to support an audit to bring finality to this uncertainty.