The key to future election security starts with a roll of the dice
December 16, 2020
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This was one of the most high-profile post-election audits in American history, but it won’t be the last. Election integrity and security experts are increasingly pushing to make risk-limiting audits (RLAs) a legal requirement for elections in all 50 states. In just the last few years, 11 states have passed laws requiring, allowing, or piloting risk-limiting audits. The idea is to build trust in systems that have become less transparent as they are more mechanized.

“Machine counting is great, but should we trust them?” says Ben Adida, who runs the election security nonprofit VotingWorks. “The whole point of risk-limiting audits is that machines are great for speed, accuracy, and objectivity—but let’s audit them to make sure they don’t make mistakes and they haven’t been hacked.”

After a largely automated initial count, a risk-limiting audit takes a small number of ballots, which humans count and check against the initial outcome. The process has been put together and picked apart by statisticians, voting experts, election officials, and computer scientists over the last two decades, but it has only recently started to be used in significant elections. (Colorado was the first state to pass legislation about risk-limiting audits, in 2009; its first statewide RLA took place in 2017.)

Adida’s nonprofit, launched in 2018, has built open-source and free software to help conduct these audits cheaply and quickly, in the hope of getting states to adopt RLAs more widely. VotingWorks helped Georgia run its audit this year, and Adida is hopeful the idea will spread.

Starting with a dice roll

In Colorado, the process starts with a big, weird public ceremony that anyone can attend: the state rolls a 10-sided die 20 times in order to create a random “seed” number that kicks off the audit. That determines which ballots will be checked against the results. The whole thing is done this way to try building trust.

“The fact that risk-limiting audits are public ceremonies that the public and press can attend is a very positive thing that will help voters perceive elections to be more trustworthy in addition to the election being more trustworthy in actuality,” Adida says. “We’re going to think about how we name it and talk about it. Even the word audit itself has a lot of negative connotations, and that’s understandable.”

So what happens now? The next four years could see as many as half of all states adopt risk-limiting audits with those goals. In the meantime, aside from the final stages of congressional confirmation, this particular election is over.

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