- The Quarterly
- Audit Excellence
|Quarterly: Winter 2019 - Megan Ko and Brooke Leary|
Auditing a vote-by-mail System: reducing risk, removing barriers
By Megan Ko and Brooke Leary
Every vote counts, but does every vote get counted? To make sure that democracy functions fairly, local elections offices work to make elections accessible for all eligible voters. This article discusses the methodology and results of a 2017 audit we did of elections in King County, Washington — which are 100 percent vote by mail. The article is organized based on our two audit objectives focused on risk and accessibility.
WHAT IS VOTE BY MAIL AND HOW DOES IT WORK?
King County is the largest jurisdiction in the United States to conduct all of its elections by mail. As of 2019, there are three states — Washington, Oregon, and Colorado — that vote exclusively by mail, and 28 more states with vote-by-mail options. Even if your state or county does not vote by mail, our audit can provide useful lessons for identifying control deficiencies and removing barriers to voting.
Ahead of the 2017 general election, we set out to assess whether ballot processing by King County Elections had sufficient internal controls in place. Our first audit objective asked: To what extent does King County Elections have processes in place to make sure that elections are accurate, fair, and efficient? In other words, what was the elections department doing to ensure it counts votes as cast, and what gaps in control remained?
The following pictures and text are three examples of control gaps we found, all relating to staff being alone with ballots.
Sole custody of uncounted ballots
While employees are directed to work in pairs on the ballot processing floor, we observed instances of employees working alone with envelopes that contained uncounted, freshly delivered ballots. The length of time an employee was alone tended to be brief and offer little opportunity to destroy a ballot. The mailroom, however, was a different story. We observed that a single employee would often be sent to get the mail, which included ballots that did not make it into the day’s bulk delivery. The room was visually separated and had a secure shred bin, which is designed to allow staff to drop paper in but not to look in or take things back out.
Opportunities to alter paper ballots
Ballot opening employees had pens since part of their work involves taking some notes. The elections department mitigates the risk that an employee would use their pen to change a vote by requiring staff work in pairs. However, we observed some staff alone at their work stations when their partner was on break.
Source: King County Auditor’s Office photograph of King County Elections’ ballot processing floor
Opportunities to alter votes
Once opened, paper ballots are fed into a scanner and uploaded into a program that translates the marks on the scanned ballots into votes. To make sure that votes are counted correctly, staff review some scanned ballots, such as when two selections are made in a race where only one selection is valid. For example, if a voter accidently picks two options in one race, they may cross one out to show which is their true vote. However, the scanner is not as capable as the human eye in differentiating between a cross out and an actual vote. Therefore, staff can overwrite how the computer logs a vote. The elections department mitigates the risk of improper vote alteration by having staff work at computers in pairs, spot-checking ballot adjustments, and having a supervisor on site to answer questions. We observed instances, however, where staff were on computers alone, increasing the risk that ballots could be modified without detection. Moreover, elections staff did not have individual computers logins and there was no recurring review of software logs for suspicious patterns of alteration (e.g., all votes changed the same way in a single race).
Even with good staff, controls are necessary. Every elections staff member we interviewed was committed to ensuring that ballots were processed efficiently and accurately, and management could not recall instances of staff intentionally mishandling ballots. However, even within organizations that have a strong culture of accountability, people are people. We make mistakes and have our own internal drives that require organizations to have their own controls to ensure that ballots are counted as cast. We made recommendations to ensure ballots are not altered or left in the custody of a single person and to train staff on the criminal penalties for ballot mishandling.
Our second audit objective asked: To what extent has King County Elections identified and minimized barriers to voting among eligible voters? In other words, we wanted to know what barriers voters faced and what the elections department was doing about them.
We created scatter plots to look for correlations between the demographic makeup of census tracts and their voter engagement rates. Each dot on a scatter plot was for a census tract. The y-axis showed one of the four rates listed above, while the x-axis showed a demographic characteristic. For example, for age we used the percentage of the population over age 65. For race we used percentage of the census tract who identified as people of color, and for income we used median income.
Our scatter plots showed that higher income was correlated with higher registration rates but not with signature challenge rates.
Plots that looked like a mess of scattered dots indicated no strong correlations, while those that looked like upward or downward sloping lines indicated that some populations may face greater barriers to voting. Finally, we conducted linear regressions to determine whether the correlations were statistically significant.
Knowing what groups of people are underrepresented at the polls can help decision makers craft programs that reduce barriers to voting. One of King County Election’s priorities is to identify barriers to voting and to work actively to remove them at the individual and community levels. The elections department has a Disability Advisory Committee to help advise on access to voting for people with disabilities. During our audit we interviewed members of the committee and toured accessible voting centers, which offer audio and large print ballots. We also reviewed guidelines for making polling places accessible set forth by the Americans with Disabilities Act checklists.
King County Elections has a number of strong controls in place to ensure that every vote gets counted as cast. However, even strong elections stewards can benefit from an outside look to help them spot what they might be missing and get more voters involved in the democratic process.
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