Senators duel over audit requirements in election security bill

voting scrutiny (Bakhtiar Zein/ 

As the Secure Elections Act barrels towards a crucial markup in the Senate, two of its original cosponsors expressed divergent views on whether the bill must mandate hand counted post-election audits.

The latest version of the bill released by Senate Rules Committee chair Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) would, like its predecessors, mandate that every state conduct a post-election audit to verify the results. However, Blunt's version would allow states to conduct those audits by hand as well as through electronic means. Previous versions of the bill specified that audits be inspected "by hand and not by device."

During a hearing on cybersecurity, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), one of the original co-sponsors of the bill, pressed her colleagues to fight to reinsert the language.

"I would love to see that risk-limiting audit requirement across the country," said Klobuchar. "What we have right now in the bill is a requirement that simply audits be required and they have to report back to us. We have backup paper ballots in 14 states now, nine as you know have partial [paper backups], five don't have any at all….I don't know how you could prove what happened in an election if there was a hacking."

Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), the other original cosponsor of the Secure Elections Act, told reporters he was open to leaving the provision untouched.

"I don't have a problem [with a digital audit]," Lankford said.

Lankford said that while there's "common agreement we need to have some kind of paper" requirements in the bill, he believes state officials should be responsible for choosing which system of auditing bests meets their needs.

"There's been lots of conversations with staff," said Lankford. "It doesn't have to be a paper ballot, it can be a paper receipt. It can be any way to keep track of it. Some people say paper is always a paper ballot, I don't think that's necessarily so."

Hand counting a randomly selected sample of vote totals is one component of what are known as risk-limiting audits, a process that election security experts and groups like Verified Voting have called "the gold standard" for validating election results. Digital audits, on the other hand, have been criticized by many of those same experts as ineffective, since a hacker who has compromised a voting machine could also have the ability to change the electronic image state officials would use to compare results.

Lankford and Klobuchar co-wrote an op-ed for The Hill Aug. 21 that called manual audits "clearly the best approach" but noted that some states -- presumably those who rely entirely on paperless voting machines -- would not be able to fulfill the requirement in time.

The divergent comments indicate the potential for a partisan split on the issue and follow media reports and comments from other senators that state election officials and voting machine manufacturers have been putting increasing pressure on lawmakers to water down the bill, something Klobuchar alluded to during the hearing.

"As you can imagine, we've spent days and days with the local secretaries of state and some of them just aren't going to like that we're requiring these backup paper ballots if they get federal money," said Klobuchar. "And these audits, I just don't know what we're going to do and the members [of Congress] are going to have to rise above that in my mind."

About the Author

Derek B. Johnson is a senior staff writer at FCW, covering governmentwide IT policy, cybersecurity and a range of other federal technology issues.

Prior to joining FCW, Johnson was a freelance technology journalist. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, GoodCall News, Foreign Policy Journal, Washington Technology, Elevation DC, Connection Newspapers and The Maryland Gazette.

Johnson has a Bachelor's degree in journalism from Hofstra University and a Master's degree in public policy from George Mason University. He can be contacted at [email protected], or follow him on Twitter @derekdoestech.

Click here for previous articles by Johnson.


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