Marie Albiges for Spotlight PA
Image: Matt Smith / For Spotlight PA
This article is made possible through Votebeat, a nonpartisan reporting project covering local election integrity and voting access. This article is available for reprint under the terms of Votebeat’s republishing policy.
HARRISBURG — At least 64 counties in Pennsylvania have begun the process of auditing the November election to verify that the original vote tally was correct and there were no errors in the state’s declaration of Joe Biden as the winner of the presidential election.
It’s only the second time a so-called risk-limiting audit is being piloted statewide. The manual, statistical review of a random sample of ballots is increasingly being promoted by election security experts as a way to check the paper record of a vote without having to recount all votes cast.
And it means more work for election officials, many of whom are burnt out and have a reduced staff during the holidays while they begin preparing for the municipal primaries in 2021.
In an email to county election officials provided to Votebeat and Spotlight PA, a Department of State employee said the timeline to complete the audit was extended to Jan. 22 after the agency heard from “multiple counties” that the original deadline of Jan. 3 wouldn’t be feasible “due to year-end staffing limitations during the holiday season, as well as COVID outbreaks.”
The audit comes as Donald Trump, who lost the state by 80,555 votes, continues contesting the state’s presidential election results and falsely claiming victory. The state certified Biden as the winner in late November, and the Electoral College confirmed his victory on Dec. 14.
As they cast doubt on the election’s integrity, Republicans in the state House directed a bipartisan committee to audit the vote to ensure “the accuracy of the results,” a request Democrats called redundant. That panel rejected the assignment, though GOP leaders are continuing to call for independent post-election reviews.
All but three Pennsylvania counties have begun the risk-limiting audit pilot, according to the Department of State, but it’s not mandatory yet. A settlement between 2016 Green presidential candidate Jill Stein and the Department of State requires counties beginning in the 2022 general election to perform “robust” audits before results are certified. Multiple counties will carry out pilot audits through 2021, according to the state department.
Counties are already required by state law to audit a set number of votes before they are certified — traditionally, counties select ballots to audit from a few precincts or voting machines — but that type of review only confirms that a voting machine functioned properly and correctly counted ballots, said Tammy Patrick, a senior advisor to the elections program at the Democracy Fund.
A risk-limiting audit, on the other hand, provides a statistical assurance that the right winner was named by evaluating paper ballots selected through a mathematical equation, Patrick said. The “risk” in risk-limiting audit refers to how likely it is that the audit will catch an error in the original outcome of the race.
County election officials must first give the Department of State a spreadsheet listing all of the containers where ballots are stored and the number of ballots in each container. Ballots are assigned a random seed number, and special auditing software generates a list of ballots to be retrieved by each county.
County election officials then pull those ballots and enter the vote cast for the presidential race into the auditing software. The results are then tallied and run through an algorithm to determine if the reported outcome of the election is correct.
Risk-limiting audits are meant to be more efficient than a regular audit, because as the margin of victory gets wider, the number of ballots needed to be audited to determine if the right winner was announced gets smaller.
But in Pennsylvania, where the margin of victory for Biden was 1.17%, county election workers are still finding themselves reviewing thousands of ballots, although the Department of State didn’t respond to questions about how many need to be pulled across the state.
In Allegheny County, spokesperson Amie Downs said the elections office will have to pull 5,045 ballots out of nearly 720,000 cast, and workers will start the first week of January.
In Lehigh County, Chief Clerk Tim Benyo said he was asked to pull 2,100 ballots out of the nearly 185,000 cast and manually enter the presidential votes for each.
And in Mercer County, Elections Director Thad Hall said two people in his office began pulling the 413 ballots assigned out of the nearly 58,000 cast on Monday and expect to be finished sometime next week.
Last November, risk-limiting audits were piloted in two counties — Philadelphia and Mercer — two weeks after the election. And following the June primary, four hundred ballots were examined during a statewide audit.
Patrick said election experts like risk-limiting audits for another reason: They help ensure that the election was administered correctly and ballots were stored properly.
“A risk-limiting audit is another way of making sure that all of the chain of custody, all of the administrative protocols of record retention are being followed,” she said. Improperly stored ballots could affect the outcome of the audit, she added.
Hall, who has been the Mercer County elections director since August, said he prefers the standard audit required by law, because it’s more easily understood by voters and political parties.
“I can’t explain a risk-limiting audit to people,” he said, adding he wants to bring political party representatives in to perform the standard audit in the future so they can see for themselves how it’s done and have greater confidence in the process.
He said he also wants to start doing more audits on the actual administration of the election, to assess if poll workers and election staff were properly trained and did their jobs correctly.
The Department of State did not respond to a question about which counties were not participating in the risk-limiting audit. A Dec. 10 email from the department to local election officials said the department was “conducting direct outreach to the remaining counties to achieve full participation.”