electionlineWeekly on New Project to Share CO’s Risk Limiting Audit Software

[Image via voting.works]

electionlineWeekly’s Mindy Moretti has a look at new audit software that will soon be available nationwide, thanks to a partnership between the State of Colorado and a new entity that will assist jurisdictions in customizing it to their needs. Here’s this week’s story:

The common thinking used to be that all you needed to audit an election was a pencil, some paper and basic grasp of 5th grade math. But like many things, common thinking changes over time.

In 2017 Colorado became the first state legally mandated to conduct a post-election risk limiting audit (RLA) and it became clear that a good No. 2 pencil and some scratch paper wasn’t going to cut it.

The Colorado Secretary of State’s Office invested in the development of an open-source RLA tool designed around the cast vote record (CVR) from Dominion Voting Systems and the ballot-comparison method for conducting the audit. The state spent $300,000 of their own money and received a $350,000 grant from the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. The original code was written by Free & Fair with the help and input of subject matter experts that were part of an advisory group. The staff in the secretary of state’s office, according to Colorado Elections Director Judd Choate, spent thousands of hours working on the project.

The current tool was born from a recognition that audits worked best when they were manageable for the people running them:

Realizing that they needed more help, Colorado turned to Democracy Works to create a more user-friendly interface for the tool and other enhancements.

“In 2017, Colorado approached us with an urgent need to complete this project before the 2018 midterm elections,” explained Kathryn Peters, co-founder of Democracy Works. “We worried that if we did not take it on, the entire momentum behind RLAs might stall out nationwide.”

Now, after several successful RLAs and with more states considering RLAs, Colorado and Democracy Works are turning the keys over to VotingWorks to make the tool customizable by state, voting system and types of audits.

“The RLA tool we’re currently contributing to is an open-source tool, and we are proud to have made significant contributions on top of the work that Free & Fair did before us,” Peters said. “We’re excited to welcome VotingWorks into the field, share what we’ve learned with them and remain supporting partners in the ecosystem as VotingWorks takes on a leadership role with RLAs.”

The move to share the tool was part of the plan all along, says Colorado’s Choate:

Choate said that it was always Colorado’s hope that the RLA software would work for other jurisdictions. He noted that voter confidence in election outcomes is central to a functioning democracy and the Colorado secretary of states’ office believes a risk-limiting audit is the best way to ensure that confidence.

“Monica Childers and Democracy Works did a great job creating a polished version of the RLA code,” Choate said. “Colorado is excited to partner with VotingWorks as they adapt the base code to function for both central and precinct count states and localities.”

The hope is that the existence of the tool will help expand the use of RLAs by lowering the perceived barriers to getting started:

Jennifer Morrell, a consultant for the Democracy Fund, has been working with states to implement RLAs while exploring possible solutions for a universal RLA tool. She is excited that VotingWorks has agreed to take on this role and feel like it will be a catalyst for other election audit tools.

“This is a big win for the election community beyond the usefulness to RLAs,” Morrell said. “All of this work around the creation of an RLA tool, from the first version used in Colorado to the forthcoming development done by VotingWorks, represents exactly what we need to solve other challenging problems in election administration. It is a model that embraces technology while focusing on collaboration to create a tool that can be used by everyone to improve the efficiency and accuracy of the work being performed. I think that is something everyone can get behind!”

The new entity behind the tool combines election technology experience with a desire to deploy solutions across the public sector:

VotingWorks is a non-partisan nonprofit which started in November 2018 to build secure and affordable voting equipment. Although it’s a young organization, VotingWorks founders Ben Adida and Matt Pasternack have years of experience. Adida has been in the election world for 20 years and received his PhD in election security from MIT. Pasternack is an experienced public sector executive, who previously worked with school districts across the country in secure software deployment.

According to Adida, states performing a risk-limiting audit need to coordinate the actions of many stakeholders in a precisely choreographed process—and software is the key to that coordination.

“As more states sought access to [Colorado’s RLA] tool, we offered to help scale the tool by applying our expertise building scalable, reliable, and secure enterprise software,” Adida said. “Because scaling the tool to these new use cases requires a significant software development effort, Democracy Works realized that if VotingWorks took on the RLA tool, Democracy Works could then focus on the more voter-centric aspects of election administration they specialize in.”

Adida said VotingWorks is ready to hit the ground running by consulting broadly with election officials looking to pilot RLAs in the near future. He noted that ultimately, the next generation of RLA tools is going to succeed only if they’re developed in close concert with all stakeholders.

“We know one important thing that won’t change: the source code for the tool and any follow-up tool we build will remain free and open-source,” Adida said. “We’ll be consulting with states to determine a long-term sustainability plan, but that won’t start until we hear from states that the tool has become useful to them and is worth sustaining.”

As is typical for electionlineWeekly, the article also includes some helpful background info:

So what is an RLA and how does the RLA tool work?
Risk limiting audits provide statistical evidence that an election outcome is correct. While there are varying definitions, generally an RLA means officials hand count and review a statistically meaningful sample of the votes cast.

The audit software, Morrell explained, is essential for conducting an RLA at any level. The tool calculates the appropriate number of ballots to audit, assists with the random selection of those ballots, and determines when the audit can stop or if it should be expanded.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, three states—Colorado, Rhode Island and Virginia— have a statutory requirement to conduct RLA. Ohio and Washington counties have the option to run RLAs (or other types of post-election audits) and beginning in 2020 California counties will also have the option to conduct RLAs.

NCSL’s election legislation database indicates there are nine bills pending in six states (Indiana, Massachusetts, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island and Virginia) specifically about risk limiting audits and 48 bills in 19 states that have post-election audits as a topic, which is an increase from 2017 but on par with 2018.

If your state is considering undertaking an RLA—or the state Legislature is requiring election officials to do so—Adida recommends you reach out to Jennifer Morrell at jmorrell@democracyfund.org.

VotingWorks would also like to hear from election officials about how they want to use the tool and what they want from it in the future. They can be contacted at rla@voting.works.

“We’re very interested in hearing how you want to use the tool and what you’ll need from it in the future,” Adida said.

This is a very positive development for the field – not just the existence of the tool itself, but the partnership between public, private and nonprofit sector players to develop the tool and make it widely available. Kudos to Colorado and everyone else involved … and thanks as always to Mindy for sharing the story with the rest of us!

Have a safe and relaxing weekend and stay tuned …

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