Friday, January 4, 2008

New Jersey's Post-Election Audit Bill: Fact & Friction

A number of people have asked for a copy of S507. Now that it's passed the New Jersey Senate, it can be found on the NJ Legislature's website with the latest amendments here:

http://www.njleg.state.nj.us/2006/Bills/S1000/507_R1.PDF

The Assembly has an identical version, A2730, amended to match S507 on Dec. 13, 2007:

http://www.njleg.state.nj.us/2006/Bills/A3000/2730_R1.PDF

The bill has passed the full Senate and the Assembly will vote on January 7.

Some folks who follow election integrity legislation have expressed some concerns about this bill. I would suggest that before venturing an opinion as to the adequacy (or lack thereof) of this legislation, everyone should first read the bill, with at least some understanding of its provisions.

Just to correct some misinformation that has been circulated thus far:

1. The bill does require a statistical audit to confirm outcomes of elections reported by electronic vote counts by using hand-to-eye counts of VVPRs and VVPBs. There are NO caps on the size of these audits -- even the initial ones. The size of the audit of each contest would have to be determined by the margin of victory, the number of precincts, the number of votes cast in each precinct and some scientifically reasonable assumptions that set a floor, but not a ceiling, on what the audit board may do.

2. The reason there are 2 different statistical power levels (99% vs. 90%) is that each of these applies to elections for different offices. This is clearly spelled out in the bill.

3. The definition of statistical power, as it relates to S507/A2730 audits can be found here. The language in the bill uses the 100% hand count as the "gold standard" to which the effectiveness of the audit is to be compared. All hand counts must be hand-to-eye counts (i.e., not relying on optical scanners or other software).

4. In NJ, an Election District is just another name for a precinct. It is not a Legislative or Congressional district. The Attorney General is the state's chief election official, but this role may revert back to the Secretary of State.

5. There are over 6,000 Election Districts in NJ, so, e.g., the minimum audit of 2% of these precincts per S507/A2730 would be at least 120 precincts statewide; more for close races and due to stratification of the samples by Legislative or Congressional district.

6. S507/A2730 requires all types of ballots counted electronically to be audited, including emergency, provisional, absentee, military and overseas federal ballots.

7. S507/A2730 requires all ballots cast and counted at the precincts to be subject to audit (random or targeted selection) and compared to precinct totals announced by the counties.

8. S507/A2730 requires "batching" of emergency, provisional, absentee, military and overseas federal ballots counted centrally at the county level so they can be randomly audited (or targeted for an audit) by comparing the vote totals of each audited batch, as reported by the optical scanner at the time the ballots were scanned, to hand-to-eye counts of the same ballots. Every ballot in each of these audit units selected for auditing must be hand counted. The use of batch sampling was necessary because NJ does not sort absentee ballots by precinct. The size of each batch is based on the average precinct size but the batches do not include votes already cast and counted at the precincts, as they are covered by the above audit of precincts.

9. S507/A2730 requires the establishment of an independent audit team and empowers them to oversee audits of any precincts or ballot batches in which they believe votes may have been miscounted in addition to the random audits. This team may promulgate additional regulations, subject to public comment, which may go beyond the strict requirements of the bill, and to implement those requirements. They must have verifiable expertise in statistics and auditing.

10. At minimum, S507/A2730 requires the initial sample size of the audit (which is at least 2%, but could be much larger in close races) to be doubled if a 0.1% change in the vote share of any candidate is detected in the sample. The audit board is empowered to order any additional audits they deem necessary to confirm the outcome of the elections prior to certification up to and including a full hand-to-eye recount. The above doubling in the case of a relatively small error rate in the sample is a floor -- not a ceiling.

11. Full manual recounts are still allowed under existing NJ law, but S507/A2730 allows hand-to-eye counts from the audits of precincts to be used in lieu of recounts of the same precincts, unless a court rules otherwise.

12. At minimum, S507/A2730 allows the same observers permitted to attend recounts to observe audits. Election officials may allow additional observers.

There are other good provisions in this bill, many of which are being adopted in other states to solve their e-vote-counting problems. This bill deserves our support, and once again, I'd suggest that before venturing an opinion about it, people should read it, and do so in the context of New Jersey's other election laws, procedures and voting systems.

Far be it from this writer to suggest that one size fits all. But this will be the first post-election audit law to require electoral outcomes to be confirmed independently of software. In other words, it's well worth emulating.

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