Friday, December 14, 2007

Post-Election Auditing: A View From The "Summit"

They say it's lonely at the top but here are a couple of videos from the first-ever "Post Election Audit Summit" held near the Twin Cities back on Oct. 25-27, 2007.

So far, accounts of this event have been pretty spotty. There was some "coverage" by a blogger in California who says he wasn't there, and a bit more from folks who were there (or who got pretty close at least). This apparent lack of publicity has fueled speculation that this event was supposed to be some kind of secret.

But before you light your torches and sharpen your pitchforks, let me say that the organizers wanted this event to be as open as possible, despite the limited space that required it to be invitation-only; so they made some videos. I thought it might be a good time to break this unintentional silence before this thing starts taking on the guise of a "Skull & Bones" initiation.

I was honored to be a panelist at this event, which meant I got a whole seven minutes to explain how to audit electronic vote counts without upsetting any election officials. That turned out to be the easy part, although I did feel a little pressed for time.

As I see it, the point of this little shindig was to explain to some of the (mostly friendly) powers that be that:

  1. It's not them we don't trust -- it's the software!
  2. We can deal with this mistrust by not relying too heavily on the software.
  3. We can show them how to do this, to the advantage of all stakeholders by using statistically accurate fair and efficient post-election audits, especially if they're conducted "on the ground" rather than up at the "summit."
Unfortunately, some folks who weren't on the guest list were quite upset about this, and I and some others are also concerned about that. I'm not one of the organizers of this event -- just a grunt panelist -- but I can attest to the fact that there really was limited space (for about 100 people), so it was not possible to invite everyone who could have contributed or benefited.

And let's face it: some folks in the Election Integrity "community" have burned more bridges than Madison County! So not everyone got the call.

One of those who did is my colleague and co-author Arlene Ash from Boston University. She has a PhD in Mathematics, but also a way with words. And although she likes to edit most, if not all, of my work when it comes to post-election auditing (you can even see her do this during my LIVE performance in the second of these videos!), she usually comes up with something very constructive.

So here's Arlene's talk, in which we learn, among other things, that auditing elections is a lot like tasting soup. You can follow along with her slide show as you watch the video:

And here I am trying to cram 20 minutes of an interactive auditing demonstration into about seven! I might have been able to do it had Arlene not interjected in the middle, but I think she actually helped to clarify something that I had neglected to mention in my hectic race against the clock. So it's all good. You can follow along with some of these slides and download this spreadsheet, both of which are shown and described in the video:

To read more about this, click here to download the simple 3-step audit protocol shown in the slides and video. It was included in a looseleaf binder that was given to all "Summit" attendees.

As you can see, I managed to get through all this in about nine minutes. After the talk, one well-known election official asked if we could do an "Auditing for Dummies" version of it. Reluctantly, I had to break the news to him that, actually, this was the "dummies" version! This got some laughs as I had anticipated it would, but then I said something like, "But seriously folks, it really takes 20 or 30 minutes to explain all this properly and I only had seven. I'm sure that everyone here would understand it given another 13 minutes or so." (I was thus able to meet the requirement not to upset any election officials.)

After that came another panel discussion, and then lunch. A lot of folks had soup, so we must have done a pretty good job explaining statistical sampling. If I had a copy of the dinner menu, I'd post it here. But there is a limit to even my documentary skills, so I guess some aspects of the "Summit" may have to remain undisclosed -- just not the election-related stuff.

If you want to take 20-30 minutes to think about how to confirm electoral outcomes (independently of software of course), please watch the above videos, view the slides, read the 3-step protocol and try the spreadsheet. Then you can say that you too have been to the "Summit" -- and it was really quite down-to-earth after all.

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