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Here’s how post-election audits work in Florida

Most counties do a hand-tally of a small number of ballots to compare to the voting machine totals.

As they finish certifying results, elections offices across Florida are starting the final phase of the 2020 general election: auditing vote tallies.

States have different rules for handling elections audits. Since they come after results have been posted, they usually get little attention from voters.

But this year, amid unsubstantiated claims of widespread fraud, some states are finding themselves under extra scrutiny for how they conduct their elections audits.

Pennsylvania Republican lawmakers on Tuesday called for a legislative-led audit of the election before President-elect Joe Biden’s win in that state is certified. On Wednesday, Georgia, suddenly a battleground state, announced it would do a manual audit of every ballot in the presidential race — effectively doing a recount of that contest. On Thursday, President Donald Trump tweeted a call for an audit of the “total votes” in Arizona, claiming with no evidence that such an audit would swing the state to him.

Thirty-eight states require some type of post-election audit, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The audits are meant to provide a check that the voting equipment and processes used to tally votes during the election worked properly. They are different from recounts in that they are generally conducted regardless of whether an election is close.

In Florida, the canvassing boards for each county’s supervisor of elections office are responsible for audits after they certify their election results.

There are two ways counties can do this.

Most counties do a manual audit, in which elections workers hand count all the votes cast in up to 2 percent of the precincts for one randomly selected race. The numbers tallied by elections workers are then compared to the official results originally produced by the vote-counting machines.

Ballots that were cast by mail, on Election Day, during early in-person voting and provisionally are all included in this audit, as are any ballots that came in from overseas voters.

“It’s labor-intensive, but worth it, from my perspective,” said Brian Corley, supervisor of elections in Pasco County. He said these audits help give county residents confidence in the elections process, saying he’s found that residents like that he and his staff are physically touching and counting ballots to ensure the accuracy of machine counts.

Julie Marcus, supervisor of elections in Pinellas County, said audits are the final step in making sure voting systems are accurate. She said Pinellas County “has had perfect audits since audits were implemented in 2008.”

That includes Friday’s audit of the general election results, in which election workers hand-counted 1,154 ballots cast in precinct 628 for the East Lake Tarpon Special Fire Control District seat 5.

“The voting systems work,” Marcus said.

Counties can also opt to do automated audits, in which they use an independent vote tabulator separate from the machines used during the election. They use this separate technology to check the counts of votes cast across every race on the ballot in at least 20 percent of precincts.

Currently, only the ClearAudit software, created by the Boston-based Clear Ballot Group, is approved in Florida to do these audits. And only a handful of Florida counties have this technology — including Hillsborough and Leon counties — although some other counties have expressed interest in getting the technology for future elections.

Hillsborough’s elections office runs all of its ballots through ClearAudit, said spokeswoman Gerri Kramer. She said the ballots are scanned into the audit system after they are processed by the election voting system tabulators, so elections officials can simply print a report when it’s time to audit the election.

The public is allowed to watch audits. Counties must complete their audits by the end of the seventh day after the election is certified.

Counties that had to conduct a manual recount during the election do not have to also conduct an audit.

Florida has seen instances where audits have caught problems with vote tallies.

For instance, in 2012, an error with the vote tabulating software in Palm Beach County caused the wrong totals to be assigned in three races in a Wellington municipal election, leading to the certification of the wrong winners in two races. The routine audit caught the mistake.

In Florida, audits come after elections are certified, so any discrepancies found would not change election vote totals but could provide information about any issues for future elections. (In the Wellington case, the audit prompted a string of lawsuits and the decision by the canvassing board to throw out the earlier election results.)

Half of the states in the U.S. conduct post-election audits before they certify results, said Lawrence Norden, director of the Election Reform Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, nonpartisan law and policy think tank.

Norden said that more states have been able to do elections audits in recent years as officials have increasingly turned to using paper ballots rather than touchscreen machines without a paper record.

Having paper ballots is considered better for security, Norden said, because they can be checked against vote totals. But they only work if elections officials actually check them.

Florida in 2008 moved nearly all its voting to paper ballots that are optically scanned into machines. That was also the year that the state began to require that post-election audits be conducted after every election.

Still, Norden said, Florida has among the weakest rules regarding post-election audits among states that do them.

He noted that Florida’s manual audit requires that elections workers only look at one contest in some precincts in one county.

“In most cases, that’s not going to give you a very high level of confidence in the results,” Norden said.

He said he’d like to see Florida mandate that, if there are inexplicable discrepancies between the manual count and the machine count, that more ballots should be counted as part of the audit.

Norden said some states, such as Colorado and Virginia, are now doing what are known as risk-limiting audits. These audits use statistical methods to determine how many ballots need to be audited to reach a certain level of confidence that the election outcome is correct. If the margin between candidates is larger, for instance, elections officials may have to audit fewer ballots than if the margin is tighter.

Regardless, Norden said it’s good that Florida and other states conduct post-election audits.

“Audits are important,” Norden said, saying they should become even more routine in elections nationwide. “They can instill confidence if they’re done right.”

Upcoming dates

The Pasco County Supervisor of Elections will conduct its post-election audit Monday.

The supervisors of elections offices in both Hillsborough and Hernando will conduct their post-election audits on Tuesday.

Florida’s Elections Canvassing Commission will meet Tuesday to certify the returns for each federal, state and multicounty office for the 2020 general election.

Tampa Bay Times elections coverage

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