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Partisan Election Review Efforts in Five States

The reviews, both proposed and ongoing, fail to satisfy basic security, accuracy, and reliability measures.

Published: July 8, 2021
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More than seven months after Arizona offi­cials certi­fied the 2020 pres­id­en­tial elec­tion results, the state senate’s ongo­ing partisan review of Mari­copa County’s results has received national atten­tion. But what’s happen­ing in Arizona is not an isol­ated incid­ent. Just last week, the Asso­ci­ated Press repor­ted that Senate Repub­lic­ans in Pennsylvania are consid­er­ing a similar review there. In fact, there are similar efforts by partisan, polit­ical actors to conduct these reviews in juris­dic­tions around the coun­try. In this report we look at five states — Arizona, Wiscon­sin, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Geor­gia — where these efforts have made signi­fic­ant progress.

In each state, the partisan review efforts have taken differ­ent forms and are in differ­ent stages. For instance, in Arizona, the State Senate’s review has been limited to a single county (Mari­copa). In the course of that review, paper ballots and voting machines were removed from the custody and control of local elec­tion offi­cials and given to a third party, which conduc­ted an “exam­in­a­tion” of those elec­tion mater­i­als, some­times outside public view. By contrast, in Wiscon­sin, the State Assembly has announced an invest­ig­a­tion of the 2020 elec­tion without stat­ing that its review would be limited to any partic­u­lar geographic loca­tion. Nor is it at all clear that the Wiscon­sin review will involve exam­in­a­tion of paper ballots or machines, as in Arizona.

While details differ, in every case, the proposed elec­tion reviews fail to satisfy basic secur­ity, accur­acy, and reli­ab­il­ity meas­ures that should be in place for any elec­tion review. And the “audit­ors” them­selves fail to meet basic stand­ards of objectiv­ity. Specific­ally, in each state, the actual or proposed partisan reviews fail to meet at least some of the follow­ing compon­ents:

  • Trans­par­ency: public audit plans, processes, and records;
  • Objectiv­ity: audit­ors who are and appear to be inde­pend­ent and free of conflicts of interest;
  • Pre-writ­ten, compre­hens­ive proced­ures: stand­ard­ized and consist­ently imple­men­ted processes designed to achieve accur­acy;
  • Compet­ence: conduc­ted by elec­tion admin­is­tra­tion experts; and
  • Secur­ity: ballots and equip­ment remain in elec­tion offi­cial control.

These defi­cien­cies stand in stark contrast to actions that exper­i­enced elec­tion admin­is­trat­ors take to verify the secur­ity of an elec­tion, as well as minimum stand­ards external audit­ors apply when conduct­ing govern­mental perform­ance audits.

Stand­ard Elec­tion Integ­rity Meas­ures

Elec­tion offi­cials across the coun­try incor­por­ate numer­ous elec­tion secur­ity and integ­rity meas­ures into every step of the elec­tion cycle, includ­ing voter regis­tra­tion record manage­ment, elec­tion admin­is­tra­tion, and results certi­fic­a­tion. These proced­ures include routine voter regis­tra­tion list main­ten­ance activ­it­ies, such as remov­ing voters based on offi­cial death records. foot­note1_gpy8zey 1 U.S. Elec­tion Assist­ance Commis­sion, “News Fact Sheet: Voter Regis­tra­tion List Main­ten­ance,” accessed June 28, 2021, https://www.eac.gov/news/2017/03/10/fact-sheet-voter-regis­tra­tion-list-main­ten­ance. For a sample of state voter regis­tra­tion list main­ten­ance reports published by elec­tion offi­cials in Pennsylvania and Wiscon­sin, see U.S. Elec­tion Assist­ance Commis­sion, “State List Main­ten­ance Proced­ures,” accessed July 5, 2021, https://www.eac.gov/state-list-main­ten­ance-proced­ures.  Most are imple­men­ted well before elec­tions occur, and include logic and accur­acy test­ing of voting machines, chain of custody proced­ures, and check­lists to ensure that other routine tasks — such as noti­fy­ing voters about an upcom­ing elec­tion or adding voters to perman­ent voter lists — are conduc­ted in compli­ance with relev­ant federal and state laws.

After the elec­tion occurs, the full process for count­ing votes involves a series of steps that take place over several weeks. Each of these steps has safe­guards in place to protect voters’ rights and the integ­rity of our elec­tions. They are conduc­ted in public; citizens and the media can (and should) ensure that they are done prop­erly. These steps and safe­guards, which vary by state, may include propri­et­ary style codes and post-elec­tion canvass veri­fic­a­tion proced­ures. They are explained in the Bren­nan Center analysis “The Roadmap to the Offi­cial Count in an Unpre­ced­en­ted Elec­tion,” and by multiple U.S. Depart­ment of Home­land Secur­ity’s Cyber­se­cur­ity and Infra­struc­ture Secur­ity Agency public­a­tions, includ­ing “Mail-In Voting: Elec­tion Integ­rity Safe­guards” and “Mail-In Voting Processing Factors.” foot­note2_uxfm­llq 2 Derek Tisler, Eliza­beth Howard, and Edgardo Cortés, “The Roadmap to the Offi­cial Count in an Unpre­ced­en­ted Elec­tion,” Bren­nan Center for Justice, Octo­ber 26, 2020, https://www.bren­nan­cen­ter.org/our-work/research-reports/roadmap-offi­cial-count-unpre­ced­en­ted-elec­tion; U.S. Cyber­se­cur­ity and Infra­struc­ture Secur­ity Agency, ”Mail-In Voting: Elec­tion Integ­rity Safe­guards,” July 31, 2020, https://www.cisa.gov/sites/default/files/public­a­tions/mail-in-voting-elec­tion-integ­rity-safe­guards_508.pdf; and U.S. Cyber­se­cur­ity and Infra­struc­ture Secur­ity Agency, “Mail-In Voting Processing Factors,” accessed June 23, 2021, https://www.cisa.gov/sites/default/files/public­a­tions/mail-in-voting-processing-factors_oct-29_508.pdf.

In the rare instance that any specific and plaus­ible alleg­a­tions or evid­ence of malfeas­ance arise, offi­cials refer these to the appro­pri­ate agen­cies, often a law enforce­ment agency. foot­note3_ytdpaz0 3 Charles Benson, “Very Few Suspec­ted Cases of Illegal Voting in 2020 Wiscon­sin Elec­tions: Report,” June 2, 2021, TMJ-4 Milwau­kee, https://www.tmj4.com/decision2020/very-few-suspec­ted-cases-of-illegal-voting-in-2020-wiscon­sin-elec­tions-report; and Geor­gia Secret­ary of State, “State Elec­tion Board Refers Voter Fraud Cases for Prosec­u­tion,” accessed June 23, 2021, https://sos.ga.gov/index.php/elec­tions/state_elec­tion_board_refers_voter_fraud_cases_for_prosec­u­tion.  When an external process audit is warran­ted, gener­ally accep­ted govern­mental audit­ing stand­ards (GAGAS), also known as The Yellow Book, can be used. foot­note4_59jl72s 4 The GAGAS “are the guidelines for audits created by the Comp­troller General and the audit agency of the United States Congress, the Govern­ment Account­ab­il­ity Office.” Seattle Office of Inspector General, “About Gener­ally Accep­ted Govern­ment Audit­ing Stand­ards,” accessed July 5, 2021, https://www.seattle.gov/oig/audits/about-gagas; U.S. Govern­ment Account­ab­il­ity Office, “Yellow Book,” accessed July 5, 2021, https://www.gao.gov/yellow­book; Comp­troller General of the United States, Govern­ment Audit­ing Stand­ards, 2003 Revi­sion, U.S. Govern­ment Account­ab­il­ity Office, June 2003, https://www.gao.gov/assets/gao-03–673g.pdf. U.S. Govern­ment Account­ab­il­ity Office, Govern­ment Audit­ing Stand­ards, 2018 Revi­sion, accessed July 5, 2021, https://www.gao.gov/assets/gao-18–568g.pdf. These minimum stand­ards are echoed in the Inform­a­tion Systems Audit­ing Asso­ci­ation’s IS Audit­ing Stand­ards which require members serving as audit­ors to “[p]erform their duties with objectiv­ity, due dili­gence, and profes­sional care, in accord­ance with profes­sional stand­ards and best prac­tices.” Certi­fied Inform­a­tion Systems Auditor Exam Cram 2, “ISACA IS Audit­ing Stand­ards and Guidelines and Code of Profes­sional Ethics,” Macmil­lan Computer Pub, April 13, 2005, https://flylib.com/books/en/2.383.1.28/1/.  The stand­ards identify an audit­or’s objectiv­ity, defined to include “inde­pend­ence of mind and appear­ance when conduct­ing engage­ments, main­tain­ing an atti­tude of impar­ti­al­ity, having intel­lec­tual honesty, and being free of conflicts of interest,” as “the basis for the cred­ib­il­ity of audit­ing in the govern­ment sector.” foot­note5_emofcwr 5 Comp­troller General of the United States. Govern­ment Audit­ing Stand­ards, 2018 Revi­sion, (emphasis added).

These stand­ard elec­tion secur­ity and integ­rity proced­ures culmin­ate in a post-elec­tion tabu­la­tion audit. Elec­tion offi­cials in each state discussed in this report conduc­ted post-elec­tion tabu­la­tion audits that required them to check a sample of cast ballots to ensure the voting machine results’ accur­acy. These audits were conduc­ted in 2020, shortly after the elec­tion, as required by state stat­ute and in compli­ance with writ­ten proced­ures draf­ted before the audit launch. foot­note6_4phs­m90 6 Michigan Comp. Laws § 168.31a(2); 25 Penn. Stat. § 3031.17; Wis. Stat. § 7.08(6); Wiscon­sin Elec­tions Commis­sion, “2020 Post-Elec­tion Voting Equip­ment Audit Proced­ures,” https://elec­tions.wi.gov/sites/elec­tions.wi.gov/files/2020–11/2020%20Audit%20In­struc­tions%20and%20Pro­ced­ures.pdf; Ga. Code § 21–2–498; Voting­Works, “Instruc­tions for Risk Limit­ing Audit Full Manual Tally,” accessed July 5, 2021, https://docs.google.com/docu­ment/d/1AVnIRqnkK2Y­idM-lszH­fuq6DG­Z0S5VSOlZMi­p­mAS­t9A/edit; Ariz. Rev. Stat. (“A.R.S.”) § 16–602.  While the specific proced­ures, such as the count­ing method, vary by state, all proced­ures were writ­ten and imple­men­ted in a manner designed to increase trust in our elec­tion system, by provid­ing for trans­par­ency into the process, giving respons­ib­il­ity for conduct­ing the audit to those with elec­tion admin­is­tra­tion exper­i­ence, and using proced­ures designed to obtain an accur­ate count. They were also conduc­ted in compli­ance with federal law requir­ing elec­tion offi­cials to protect and preserve elec­tion mater­i­als and retain “ulti­mate manage­ment author­ity over the reten­tion of those elec­tion records.” foot­note7_j55o7g5 7 U.S. Depart­ment of Justice, Federal Prosec­u­tion of Elec­tion Offenses, Eighth Edition, edited by Richard C. Pilger, Elec­tion Crimes Branch, Public Integ­rity Section, Decem­ber 2017, 79, https://www.justice.gov/crim­inal/file/1029066/down­load.

Moreover, in each state we exam­ine, well-estab­lished law offers or ensures candid­ates in close elec­tions access to a recount. However, in 2020 in each state, the Trump campaign either failed to qual­ify for a recount (because the margin wasn’t suffi­ciently close), failed to request a recount, or reques­ted a recount that ulti­mately provided addi­tional confirm­a­tion of the outcome’s accur­acy.

Despite these facts, Trump support­ers continue to make false claims of fraud in support of these endeavors to trans­fer federal elec­tion mater­i­als to inex­per­i­enced, polit­ical actors for review. As explained in more detail in this report, the proced­ures proposed for these reviews are not designed to obtain secure and accur­ate results and are radic­ally differ­ent from proven elec­tion integ­rity proced­ures, such as post-elec­tion tabu­la­tion audits, routinely conduc­ted by elec­tion offi­cials across the coun­try. That these efforts are gain­ing trac­tion more than six months after certi­fic­a­tion of the elec­tion is a blink­ing red warn­ing light.

With research and writ­ing support from Turquoise Baker.

End Notes