Pennsylvania to test an extra layer of election security — math

The system, known as a "risk-limiting audit," uses advanced statistical analysis and a dose of randomness to look for irregularities in vote tallies.
Image: Polling station
Mark Ondishim, 52, casts his vote in the 2018 Pennsylvania Primary Election for U.S. Senator at the Hazleton Southside Fire Station polling station on May 15, 2018 in Hazleton, Pa.Mark Makela / Getty Images file

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By Jason Abbruzzese

Pennsylvania's Department of State is launching a pilot program of a math-based audit system that has gained traction in recent years as a way to quickly check the accuracy of election results.

The system is known as a "risk-limiting audit" and uses an advanced statistical analysis along with a dose of randomness — auditors can use a 10-sided dice — to look for irregularities in vote tallies. The system has been lauded for its transparency, since the results of the audits are then made public.

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"This pilot project will allow us to explore audit procedures that will further strengthen Pennsylvania's election security profile and provide confidence to the voters that their votes are being counted accurately," acting Pennsylvania Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar said in a press release on Wednesday.

The program is being run in Mercer County in western Pennsylvania and Philadelphia, which are both using new paper-based voting systems.

The pilot program comes as elections officials are looking for any way to increase the security of elections and bolster public trust in the voting process. Intelligence officials have repeatedly warned that the 2020 election will be a target for manipulation, with efforts to undermine U.S. public confidence at the forefront.

Risk-limiting audits have been tested in various states including Virginia and Rhode Island, and the latter now mandates the audits for statewide, primary, general and special elections.

"Election security measures such as risk-limiting audits are an important element to ensuring election integrity — from the beginning of the process through the certification of the winner," said Nick Custodio, spokesperson for the Philadelphia Board of Elections. "This audit process, which goes above and beyond the audits currently required by the state Election Code, will provide additional assurances to our voters."

The idea of using this kind of analysis to check election results has been supported by voter organizations for years but has only caught on more recently. In 2009, the League of Women Voters called for risk-limiting audits to be added to existing election protections.

"Statistical principles must play a key role in deciding how many audit units are chosen," the group wrote in an election auditing report. "Best practices say to use a 'risk-limiting' approach in which all decisions are made in such a way as to minimize the risk of confirming an outcome that is, in fact, wrong."