Pennsylvania's election audit moves follow the partisan playbook

Pennsylvania's election audit moves follow the partisan playbook
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In the wake of the 2020 presidential election, across the country, we saw radical efforts to spread lies about voter fraud, attack voting rights and overturn the results of the presidential election. These attempts are grounded in dishonesty and naked partisan self-interest, often relying on bad faith, pretextual arguments about election security. Pennsylvania Republicans’ latest bid to create a new partisan bureau of election audits is much of the same. And it’s bad policy for Pennsylvania, as it would be for the rest of the nation.

The truth is this: Pennsylvania’s 2020 election was a success. It was more secure than prior years, owing to the transition away from aging paperless machines. Record numbers turned out to exercise their right to vote, despite the pandemic, thanks in part to the commonsense mail voting option. And the courts batted down the frivolous lawsuits and their conspiracy-tinged fraud allegations that aimed to invalidate our votes. 

Yet some in the state are persisting in trying to politicize election audits, pointing to the very electoral doubts they encouraged as a basis for their campaign to create a new partisan audit office under the auditor general. That is wrongheaded, and we should instead be looking to institute better post-election audits (like risk-limiting audits) in a bipartisan fashion.

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Under current Pennsylvania law, counties are responsible for conducting post-election audits. Through bipartisan boards of elections, counties perform these traditional audits, which require a recount of a random sample of the lesser of 2000 ballots or 2 percent of votes cast. The Pennsylvania Department of State provides guidance and support to counties. The utility of such audits increased dramatically following the transition to paper-based voting systems. As recently as 2018, more than 80 percent of Pennsylvania voters had been voting on paperless machines, which deprived officials of the ability to meaningfully audit results. 

Despite these security improvements, the GOP,  intent on further politicizing post-election audits, attempted to create a new Bureau of Election Audits through a now-failed bill. The bureau would have fallen under the auditor general, a partisan elected official whose office has no experience in running elections or audits of them. 

Additionally, the proposed powers for the bill (which Pennsylvania Governor Tom WolfTom WolfPennsylvania GOP authorizes subpoenas in election probe Former US attorney enters race for governor in Pennsylvania Harris in Shanksville honors heroism, courage of Flight 93 passengers MORE (D) wisely vetoed this week) are foolishly vast and would open the door for the kind of reckless audit undertaken by the Arizona Senate. Such wide-ranging fishing expeditions—conducted incompetently and rigged to throw doubt on elections without evidence — will only further undermine trust in the process and weaken good faith efforts to secure votes.

Despite the demise of the Pennsylvania bill, its backers have argued that the auditor general can nonetheless create this new bureau and usurp audit powers from the counties and the state. That view is inconsistent with Pennsylvania’s Election Code, the auditor general’s own understanding of his office’s powers, and Wolf’s veto of funding to create the new bureau. 

Republican legislators in all states should be focused on bipartisan risk-limiting audits, not partisan antics, to foster confidence in elections. Risk-limiting audits are growing in popularity across the country, as they should: They rely on principles of statistics to confirm electoral outcomes with greater efficiency than other audits.  

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I urge policymakers in Pennsylvania and across the nation to institute mandatory risk-limiting audits after every election. And that mandate should ensure that election officials complete these audits before certifying results.

To be sure, some may balk at imposing more duties (and costs) on local officials. But we should not avoid measures that will bolster trust in elections to save a few bucks. Besides, risk-limiting audits will likely be more efficient than the traditional audits they would replace in many cases, alleviating some post-election burdens.

If legislators in Pennsylvania and other states were serious about trust in elections, they would back off the partisan power plays and instead work to fund and implement risk-limiting audits in a bipartisan fashion. Election officials (and bipartisan boards of elections) already know how to run and audit elections, and it would be a mistake to ignore that experience. Just as it would be a mistake to charge an inexperienced and partisan office with the solemn duty of auditing an election. Our democracy deserves better.

Chris Deluzio is an attorney and the policy director of The University of Pittsburgh Institute for Cyber Law, Policy, and Security. He previously staffed the Blue Ribbon Commission on Pennsylvania’s Election Security.