Pennsylvania to test an extra layer of election security — math

Image: Polling station
Mark Ondishim, 52, casts his vote in the 2018 Pennsylvania Primary Election for U.S. Senator at the Hazleton Southside Fire Station polling station on May 15, 2018 in Hazleton, Pa. Copyright Mark Makela Getty Images file
Copyright Mark Makela Getty Images file
By Jason Abbruzzese with NBC News Tech and Science News
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The system is known as a "risk-limiting audit" and uses advanced statistical analysis along with a dose of randomness to look for irregularities in vote tallies.

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Pennsylvania's Department of State announced on Wednesday that it would be launching a pilot program of a math-based audit system that has gained traction in recent years as a way to quickly check the accuracy of election results.

The system is known as a "risk-limiting audit" and uses an advanced statistical analysis along with a dose of randomness — auditors can use a 10-sided dice — to look for irregularities in vote tallies. The system is lauded for its transparency, since the results of the audits are then made public.

The pilot program will happen in conjunction with Mercer County in western Pennsylvania and Philadelphia, which are using new paper-based voting systems.

"This pilot project will allow us to explore audit procedures that will further strengthen Pennsylvania's election security profile and provide confidence to the voters that their votes are being counted accurately," Acting Pennsylvania Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar said in a press release.

The pilot comes as local elections officials are looking for any way to increase the security of elections and bolster public trust in the voting process. Intelligence officials have repeatedly warned that the 2020 election will be a target for manipulation, with efforts to undermine U.S. public confidence at the forefront.

Risk-limiting audits have been tested in various states including Virginia and Rhode Island, the latter of which now mandates the audits for statewide, primary, general and special elections.

"Election security measures such as risk-limiting audits are an important element to ensuring election integrity - from the beginning of the process through the certification of the winner," said Nick Custodio, spokesperson for the Philadelphia Board of Elections. "This audit process, which goes above and beyond the audits currently required by the state Election Code, will provide additional assurances to our voters."

The idea of using this kind of analysis to check election results has gained traction in recent years, but has been supported by voter organizations for years. In 2009, the League of Women Voters called for risk-limiting audits to be added to existing election protections.

"Statistical principles must play a key role in deciding how many audit units are chosen," the group wrote in an election auditing report. "Best practices say to use a 'risk-limiting' approach in which all decisions are made in such a way as to minimize the risk of confirming an outcome that is, in fact, wrong."

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