Auditing elections

If you read only one thing this week on the fight against election subversion (specifically in the United States, but the lesson applies generally), make it this piece in the New Republic by Steven Rosenfield.

Rosenfield profiles a trio of three retired election administrators – Benny White, Larry Moore and Tim Halvorsen – who call themselves the “Audit Guys” (see their website here). Especially with reference to the Maricopa county “audit” in Arizona, they have done remarkable work in enlightening the public about the realities of the 2020 election and exposing the fraudulent nature of the Trumpist crusade against it.

Most interestingly, they have done so using publicly available data. As Rosenfield puts it:

What was notable about this line of inquiry was that it produced more easily understood evidence and explanations than the technicality-laced assurances by election officials that their voting systems were reliable. Moreover, the Audit Guys’ takeaways were based on public records.

… [White] was carefully using hard data as the basis for clear explanations that appealed to common sense; explanations that he hoped would stand a better chance of being trusted by voters.

Election administrators across the country were unprepared for the sheer scale of the disinformation campaign that Trump unleashed, and were slow to meet it. In most places, the evidence was not mustered quickly enough to provide a counter-narrative when it was most needed; as Moore says at one point, “imagine if the press, political parties, and public had seen this evidence trail … in mid-November.”

It may be that the administrators themselves are not the best people to be selling the public on the soundness of the system; Rosenfield notes that civil servants often have “an aversion to having outsiders peer over their shoulders.” But the media, the political parties, academics and other experts all need to do their share of analysing and communicating how elections actually work (including, of course, the places where there are genuine problems).

Rosenfield is hopeful that the Audit Guys have “created a template” that will allow this job to be done in future and “may help save our democracy.” Past experiences such as the climate change debate, though, should warn us that giving people facts does not necessarily change their minds; those who are already committed to a particular worldview simply interpret new information in the same light without reconsidering their own position.

Still, it’s well worth a try. And I remain of the view that the Democrats, and democracy itself, have nothing to lose from the fullest possible airing of the evidence in relation to Trump’s allegations. Even if only a minority of Republicans still have an open mind on the subject, that minority could be pivotally important at election time.

There’s one aspect of the issue, however, that Rosenfield doesn’t mention, namely ballot secrecy. Inviting public-spirited experts, and ultimately ordinary citizens, to pore over masses of election data does involve some risk. Things like cast-vote records and digital ballot images are theoretically anonymised, but in particular cases – especially with very small polling places or distinctive voting patterns – they may sometimes allow a determined investigator to correlate votes with particular individuals, thus compromising the secret ballot.

I don’t think this danger is large enough to justify a general retreat from transparency, but it’s something to be aware of. It’s also not peculiar to elections. In many areas, governments produce large quantities of data that is theoretically in the public domain, but which it’s assumed will not in fact circulate much beyond the class of those directly concerned – and where the suggestion of mass circulation might be met with some concern.

Coincidentally, Matt Yglesias posted a story last week in which he drew attention to this issue in relation to the census.* In the US (as in Australia) the census bureau introduces random errors into the fine-grained data that it publishes in order to preserve anonymity. Otherwise there is a serious risk that modern methods of data analysis would enable individuals to be identified and their privacy violated.

Yglesias thinks that this process has gone too far, and he may be right. But the danger should not be dismissed out of hand. The public in the age of social media may be less hung up on privacy than was once the case, but that doesn’t mean it’s lost all importance.

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* Thanks to Michael Warby for the pointer.

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