Capitol Beat

Just another roll of the dice: PA kicks off election audit the hard way

Department of State officials kicked off a risk-limiting audit of the April 23 primary election on Thursday.

Department of State official Jonathan Marks oversees the department’s dice roll in May 2024.

Department of State official Jonathan Marks oversees the department’s dice roll in May 2024. Commonwealth Media Services

The Pennsylvania Department of State has kicked off another post-election audit by rolling the dice – specifically, several decahedronal dice – on Thursday to determine the seed number needed for a risk-limiting audit of the state’s April 23 Democratic primary election for state treasurer. 

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, a risk-limiting audit, also referred to as an RLA, reduces the number of ballots that need to be audited while still providing confidence that an election result is correct. 

Department of State Deputy Secretary for Elections and Commissions Jonathan Marks oversaw the dice roll, which saw volunteers from the department roll 20 of the dice to create a random seed number that determines the the batches of ballots that get audited.

“This seed number ensures that the batches of ballots counties pool for the audit are selected at random from among all the ballots counties recorded in this race,” Marks said.The 20-digit seed number – which came out to 60136347416595429308 – will be entered into an open source software designed specifically for risk-limiting audits, he said.

“Once all the selected counties report the results of their audit, the Department of State will compile and evaluate statewide results to determine whether the RLA has provided strong evidence that the reported outcome of the race was correct,” he added. 

Marks added that the Democratic primary for state treasurer was selected in a random drawing on April 26.

At least three states – Colorado, Rhode Island and Virginia – require RLAs by statute, and other states, including Pennsylvania, Georgia, Indiana, Nevada and Texas have conducted RLAs through pilot programs, per NCSL.

Marks, who said that risk-limiting audits are referred to as the “gold standard” of post-election audits, added that Pennsylvania’s elections have several layers of security, including a statutorily required 2% statistical ballot recount that applies to all counties. Per the Department of State, that review requires county officials to “conduct a statistical recount of a random sample of at least 2% of all ballots cast, or 2,000 ballots, whichever is fewer.”

According to the department, counties must complete the audit by May 10 and certify the results to Pennsylvania Secretary of State Al Schmidt by May 13.

The Department of State issued a directive in September 2022 asking counties to conduct RLAs after every election, and this year’s primary audit marks the fourth time the state has conducted an RLA since the directive.

Marks said Thursday that RLAs are designed to improve public confidence in election results. 

“It’s to give everyone confidence that the outcome of an election is correct,” he said, adding that while the audit may not convince every skeptic that an election is accurate and secure, it will help to give Pennsylvania voters a sense of how the post-election audit process works.

“I certainly am not deluding myself into believing that we’re going to convince every skeptic, but I think providing this transparency and undertaking these post-election processes prior to certification will give some individuals confidence where they may have had some doubt,” he said. “It will at least answer their questions and give them an opportunity to see this process and other processes in action.”