Elections (Archived)

What would a partisan election review look like for Pennsylvania?

Doug Mastriano and Wayne Fontana

Doug Mastriano and Wayne Fontana Pennsylvania Senate Republican Caucus

GOP State Sen. Doug Mastriano announced plans this month to conduct a “forensic investigation” of Pennsylvania’s 2020 general election and 2021 primary election results. To do so, Mastriano made a sweeping request to three Pennsylvania counties requesting – under threat of subpoenas – access to voting machines, ballots, software, computer logs, security tokens and a whole lot more. 

Mastriano is an ally and supporter of former President Donald Trump, who has peddled misinformation and conspiracy theories since losing to President Joe Biden last year. Mastriano wrote in an op-ed that the investigation is being conducted to “restore faith in the integrity of our system,” while state Democrats have panned the proposed investigation as an “unlawful witch hunt.”

But what exactly would his audit mean for Pennsylvania? City & State reached out to three elections experts on the impacts Mastriano’s review could have: Will Adler, senior technologist in Elections & Democracy at the Center for Democracy & Technology in Washington, D.C.; Chris Deluzio, policy director at the University of Pittsburgh Institute for Cyber Law, Policy, and Security; and Gowri Ramachandran, senior counsel in the Election Reform Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. These responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Pennsylvania Republicans have indicated an interest in conducting a forensic audit of the state’s 2020 general election results. What makes for a good audit and what makes for a bad audit?

Will Adler: A good audit establishes and tests clear hypotheses, is transparent to the public, documents procedures clearly and in advance, and is conducted by competent and unbiased auditors. A bad audit, like the seemingly never-ending clown show in Maricopa County, Ariz., is an expensive fishing expedition.

Chris Deluzio: Any good post-election audit should be grounded in best practices, guided by a commitment to leave partisanship out of it, and done transparently by those with experience and expertise in election administration. Sen. Mastriano’s supposed audit fails on each. Pennsylvania law already requires the completion of a post-election audit—specifically, counties must conduct a recount of a random sample of the lesser of 2000 ballots or 2% of votes cast before certifying results. And Pennsylvania counties operate in a bipartisan fashion through boards of elections, unlike Sen. Mastriano’s partisan plan.

Gowri Ramachandran: Election audits should be performed by competent personnel, people with experience in election administration and election infrastructure security. Experienced auditors maintain the security of both ballots and election equipment so that the accurate record of the election is not compromised, and so that machines can be safely used in future elections. This includes preventive measures like keeping ballots in a locked facility, and ensuring that equipment is not connected to wireless networks which can make it more vulnerable to malicious actors. Audits should follow pre-written procedures that are clear, consistently adhered to, and designed to produce accurate results. The partisan review being conducted in Arizona meets none of those basic elements, and it is not a model that should be imported to Pennsylvania or any other state. 

The Pennsylvania Department of State has said that a forensic audit could compromise the state’s voting machines by allowing for "intrusive access" into the systems. What impact would a legislative audit of election results have on voting machines?

Will Adler: It is absolutely critical to maintain the chain of custody for election equipment. For instance, if an election official doesn’t know where a ballot tabulator machine has been, or what has been done to it, they might be forced to retire the equipment and replace it at taxpayer expense. Pennsylvania counties have been issued requests for massive amounts of election equipment. In the absence of clear procedures to maintain chain of custody by competent auditors, this is a recipe for disaster and the corruption of expensive equipment.

Chris Deluzio: I agree with the Department of State that the partisan audit contemplated by Sen. Mastriano would endanger the security and reliability of Pennsylvania’s voting machines. Unauthorized or irresponsible access to the machines could undermine state certification, federal Election Assistance Commission certification, or contractual requirements set by the vendor – or all three. Counties just recently obtained these new machines (within the last couple of years), and it would be a tremendous expense (both in terms of dollars and manpower) if counties were forced to replace those machines to placate Sen. Mastriano’s fishing expedition.

Gowri Ramachandran: The partisan review conducted in Maricopa County, Ariz. resulted in the effective decertification of the county’s leased voting machines because it is not known what was done to the machines while Cyber Ninjas, the company the Arizona Senate hired, had control over them. The estimated cost of leasing new voting machines and an election management server is approximately $2.2 million. 

How would an audit such as this affect confidence in elections?

Will Adler: Well-run post-election audits are the best way to ensure that procedures were properly followed, ballots were properly tabulated, and that the outcome was correct. Thankfully, the Pennsylvania Department of State, in collaboration with competent and qualified election auditors, has already piloted a statewide risk-limiting audit – the gold standard for efficiently gaining confidence that an election outcome was correct.

But audits can also be abused – by using them to put a spotlight on baseless claims of election irregularities, needlessly undermining confidence in elections. The Maricopa County, Ariz. audit has done little more than corrupt election equipment, generate misinformation, and sow distrust. By all accounts, the audit being proposed in Pennsylvania is being proposed and supported by people who have spent the last eight months falsely raising doubts about the election that have been disproven time and time again. There is, therefore, no reason to believe that this audit will do anything except further damage trust in our election systems.

Chris Deluzio: Sen. Mastriano’s attempt to create a partisan audit of the 2020 election in some Pennsylvania counties cannot be separated from the context of his own actions to weaken our democracy: He participated in the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection, he regularly spewed lies and conspiracies about fraud in the presidential election, and he encouraged the overthrow of our election results here in Pennsylvania. Sen. Mastriano justifies this purported audit by pointing to the very distrust that he and his allies created in Pennsylvania and across the country. The election was certified more than six months ago, following the successful completion of the post-election audit across the Commonwealth required by Pennsylvania law. We saw litigation challenging the veracity of the results, all rejected by the courts. There is no basis for this kind of partisan review unless your aim is to further whittle away faith in our democracy for partisan gain.

Gowri Ramachandran: From what we know so far, which isn’t a lot, at least one Pennsylvania lawmaker is asking for access to a large amount of election materials, including ballots and equipment, from three counties. It appears Senator Mastriano is trying to follow the example of the partisan review being conducted in Maricopa County. And if that’s the case, this proposed so-called audit in Pennsylvania couldn’t improve confidence in elections because it wouldn’t meet basic standards for a trustworthy election audit. Instead, it would likely provide fuel for the disinformation campaign being promoted by those who refuse to accept the outcome of the 2020 presidential election.

What changes, if any, should policymakers seek to increase confidence in election results and existing post-election audits?

Will Adler: As some Pennsylvania legislators have already recognized, Pennsylvania’s existing post-election audit law is in need of an overhaul. The current law requires counties to recount a random sample of ballots that might not be large enough in the case of a close election. Legislators should do away with this requirement and instead require risk-limiting audits like the one already conducted by the Department of State. When done right, post-election audits can be done routinely, transparently, inexpensively and can build confidence in elections.

Chris Deluzio: I would urge legislators in Harrisburg to work in a bipartisan fashion to (1) give counties more time before Election Day to pre-canvass mail ballots and (2) fund and implement risk-limiting audits in Pennsylvania. These audits – which can be more efficient than the traditional audits they would replace – can alleviate some post-election burdens on the counties while offering the public more confidence that outcomes are correct. And I would hope to see the department of state taking a leading role in training and assisting counties in performing these important audits, as they have done in recent pilot risk-limiting audits in Pennsylvania. The GOP in Harrisburg should also back off the efforts to make it harder for people to vote (such as curtailing mail voting) and the delusional rhetoric about the 2020 presidential election results.

Gowri Ramachandran: It’s important that leaders start by telling the truth about the 2020 election – the election was secure. Every county in Pennsylvania used paper ballots, a practice recommended by election security experts because it allows officials to go back and verify that the machine tallies were accurate. The results were audited and confirmed by individuals with election administration experience, just as they have been in past years. Going forward, lawmakers should ensure that election officials have the funding they need to do their jobs. With sustained funding, officials can maintain a resilient election system that has good cybersecurity and follows other best practices in the field.