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Two More States Tackle Election Security

Rhode Island tested election audits, while South Carolina moved towards replacing its outdated voting machines.

January 22, 2019

Two states placed election security on their agenda last week. In Rhode Island, election officials piloted three risk-limiting audits. And in South Carolina, lawmakers were set to introduce a bill that would both eliminate paperless voting machines and require risk-limiting audits.

As the 2020 elections approach, election officials across the country can draw lessons from both states, especially given the context of the ongoing investigations into Russian cyberattacks in 2016.

Rhode Island test drives risk-limiting audits for 2020

Last week, the Rhode Island Board of Elections piloted three different types of pilot risk-limiting audits, partnering with advocacy groups like Common Cause, Verified Voting, and the Brennan Center, as well as local election officials in three municipalities. Rhode Island is set to become the second state, after Colorado, to require such audits by the 2020 presidential primary.

A risk-limiting audit is a method for verifying whether voting machines are recording and tallying votes correctly. This involves hand-counting a statistically meaningful sample of votes cast, which determines whether the original vote tally was correct. Performing a risk-limiting audit can help assure voters that the outcome of an election was not affected by a counting error or a malicious attack.

“Risk-limiting audits are the gold standard for post-election audits to ensure there was no tampering with the software that could change election outcomes,” said Lawrence Norden, deputy director of the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program.

Election audits can vary greatly from state to state and depending on the voting machines and election processes in each state. By testing different methods, Rhode Island has the opportunity to experiment with timing, record success and mistakes, and to create procedures for the first statewide audit in 2020.

“Now is the time to work out all of the kinks,” said Norden. “And the best way to do this is to first do a pilot of the audit before it is required, which allows time to apply what is learned.”

South Carolina moves toward updating its voting machines

In South Carolina last week, a bipartisan group of state representatives were set to introduce a bill that would require the state to use hand-marked paper ballots processed by optical scanners for all future elections. The bill also requires risk-limiting audits for all statewide and local elections.

South Carolina has a uniform statewide voting system, and the machines currently in use are 14 years old. At the moment, the state relies entirely on paperless electronic voting machines, which are also known as DRE (Direct Recording Electronic) voting machines. Paperless voting machines are particularly unreliable because they do not produce a paper record that either voters or election officials can review.

“You need something independent from the voting software or computer to confirm that the vote was recorded accurately,” said Norden. “But you won’t be able to prove that without paper ballots.”

The Brennan Center has done extensive research outlining the heightened risks associated with outdated voting technology and the implications for foreign interference.

Protecting the vote

Outdated election infrastructure is a problem that extends across our country. It’s urgent that we do all we can to boost election security and to protect the vote. Rhode Island and South Carolina give us some clues on how to do so.

(Image: Jessica McGowan/Getty)