Is Rhode Island ready for a close election Tuesday? An exhaustive recent study raises some concerns.
Common Cause and the Verified Voting Foundation published a 331-page study [pdf] in July warning that many of the nation’s states have voting systems that are likely to fail. And Rhode Island was among the states that received an overall grade of “Needs Improvement.”
Here’s how Rhode Island stacked up by category:
- Paper Ballots and Records: Paper Ballots
- Polling Place Contingency Plans: Not Applicable
- Voted Ballot Return for UOCAVA Voters: Inadequate
- Post-Election Audits: Inadequate
- Ballot Accounting and Reconciliation: Generally Good
Common Cause Rhode Island has been sounding the alarm about the state’s aging voting machines for a while, and the disputed San Bento-Tobon recount two months ago has also increased doubts about those processes. After the jump, read what the study had to say about Rhode Island in the different categories:
Voted Ballot Return for UOCAVA Voters: Inadequate
Rhode Island allows UOCAVA voters to apply for their blank ballots by mail or by facsimile, and to receive blank ballots by mail, facsimile, or via download from a secure website. If no preference is selected, the ballot will be mailed. According to the Secretary of State, if electronic transmission is requested, the ballot must be sent by both electronic means and mail service. Military and overseas voters may return their completed ballots by mail or facsimile, but if the ballot was sent to the voter via electronic means, after being voted upon it must be returned by electronic transmission. Although voters in such circumstances are not required to return the original ballot also, according to the Secretary of State, if a voter returns his or her ballot electronically, the voter “should also send their official ballot in the mail” and “[t]he State Board of Elections will count the [ballot] that they have in their possession at 9 p.m. on election night.” The Board of Elections confirmed this, and added that “[i]f the original ballot is mailed after a copy is faxed, the staff reconciles the ballots so only the original will be counted on Election Day. If the original is never returned, the electronically returned copy will be used instead.” Because Rhode Island allows electronic return by fax for all UOCAVA voters, subjecting these ballots to security risks, rendering them unauditable, and compromising voter privacy, it received a rating of inadequate.
Post-Election Audits: Inadequate
Rhode Island is rated inadequate because it has no state requirement for conducting post-election audits, despite having auditable systems in all jurisdictions statewide.
Ballot Accounting and Reconciliation: Generally Good
Rhode Island uses optical scanners statewide as the standard polling place equipment. Rhode Island’s ballot reconciliation procedures are generally good but need improvement in specific areas.
Account for all ballots, votes, and voters at the polling place
The precinct warden prints out and signs vote totals from each voting machine in the precinct and reads the results aloud. Write-in ballots are sent immediately to local boards of canvassers, who will count and record all such ballots. Machine-result printouts are attached to return forms (which include a record of the number of voters on the poll list and the number of votes cast on each machine) and sent to both local board of canvassers as well as state board of elections. In addition, poll workers are required to “balance” the number of ballots cast with the number of ballots used, and if those numbers cannot be reconciled, they must complete a “Discrepancy Report” and transmit it to the board of elections. The Discrepancy Report may be reviewed during audits and recounts.
Reconcile ballot totals and address discrepancies at the polling place
State statutes require that each precinct must record the numbers of names checked on the voting list in the precinct as well as the number of votes cast in the precinct’s optical scan machine. While Rhode Island law does not explicitly require the comparison of these two totals, a representative of the state board of elections reports that poll workers are required to reconcile these totals on the official election certificate. Both of the election officials surveyed confirmed that they do this in practice. We recommend explicitly requiring the comparison of the number of ballots cast to the total number of voters as a matter of law or regulation.
The Secretary of State’s office ultimately keeps track of spoiled and unused ballots. The state board of elections audits all precincts after an election, and part of this audit involves a comparison of the number of unused/voided ballots and the number of voted ballots. The audit is designed to ensure that the number of voted ballots added to the total number of unused/voided ballots equals the number of ballots originally sent to the precinct. While this procedure is quite thorough, we recommend requiring poll workers to account for all ballots during the precinct canvass.
Reconcile precinct totals to county totals, and reconcile memory cards at the county level
The local canvassing board meets the day after the election to tabulate the local returns, and after the time period to contest results has passed, certifies local elections. The local board of canvassers certifies the local elections with a statement of the number of votes cast in the city or town for each candidate and for and against any proposition. The state board of elections, in turn, certifies statewide elections and sends a statement of vote to the Secretary of State, which includes total numbers of votes by district, town, and city for any candidate or proposition.
The board of elections verifies the precinct totals by comparing the election tape with the total number of ballot applications, and with the results electronically transmitted from the local boards to the board of elections on election night.
Make all results public
At the close of the polls, a copy of the results tape from each optical scanner is required to be posted at the polling place. The board of elections and local election official surveyed confirmed they do this in practice.
The board of elections must keep record books of votes cast for each office. Each book must contain a record of the total votes cast for each candidate in each district according to the board, the total number of votes cast in each district according to the certification, the number of votes cast for each candidate in each town and city, the total number of votes cast for each candidate in the state or congressional district, and any other pertinent facts. Election results are posted on the Secretary of State’s website.
Rhode Island requires three of the best practices; therefore, Rhode Island’s ballot reconciliation procedures are generally good, but need improvement in specific areas. While the state’s procedures in place for ballot accounting and reconciliation at the precinct-level are good, and its publication requirements appear to be more comprehensive than simply requiring results posting, we recommend that Rhode Island enact an explicit requirement that election officials reconcile the number of ballots cast to the total number of voters at the polling place and require poll workers to account for all ballots during the precinct canvass. In addition, we recommend that Rhode Island require election officials to compare precinct totals to county totals, and to that extent that memory cards are used, that Rhode Island enact rigorous memory card reconciliation procedures.