Audits vs. Recounts: What’s the Difference?
By Corrie Emerson
Audits and recounts are two different post-election processes, but both are designed to build confidence in our elections. With everything going on in the post-election news cycle, Verified Voting and Citizens for Election Integrity Minnesota (CEIMN) coauthored this FAQ on the difference between an audit and a recount. For questions, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
What is the difference between an audit and a recount?
An audit is a routine part of the post-election process designed to ensure systems worked as expected. A recount is performed in response to something that may have happened in a specific contest, such as a very close margin, and could be initiated automatically by statute or requested by candidates, voters, election officials, or interested parties. Audits and recounts are important post-election processes, and they serve to build confidence in our election systems.
Recount and audit laws vary by state, but best practices for tabulation audits include routinely examining a random sample of voter-marked paper ballots by hand to check the machine-tabulated results. Although some states recount ballots by hand, in most cases, recounts are conducted by re-scanning the ballots and only hand-examining the ballots that can’t be interpreted by the scanners.
Often, auditing the machine tabulations can give confidence in the election outcome by examining only a fraction of the ballots. A recount usually recounts all ballots, and often allows the interested parties to challenge the interpretation of the voter’s intent
If there is a recount, is an audit necessary?
Recounts are typically focused on a specific contest. Audits, as a routine post-election practice, can give valuable information about other contests. Both audits and recounts can provide transparent public scrutiny of our election processes and voting equipment, and they are important tools for improving our elections.
In some cases the work involved in a tabulation audit may overlap with some of the work done in a recount. For example, a full hand recount is a (very thorough) audit. Many types of audits, including risk-limiting audits, call for examining an increasing number of ballots—even performing a full hand count—if initial samples don’t provide adequate confidence in the correctness of the election outcome. Therefore, if a recount involves recounting every ballot by hand, it can be considered a risk-limiting audit that has immediately moved ahead to this ultimate level of examination. For more information on risk-limiting audits, see Verified Voting’s risk-limiting audit page.
Recounts that rescan ballots, even with a different machine, are still relying on technology to count ballots. When a recount rescans the ballots, a supplemental hand-count audit is critical, even if not required by law. In general, a hand-count audit is the best practice.
If there is not a recount, can audits help counter the narrative that the election was fraudulent?
Yes, routine auditing is part of the continuous improvement process by which election agencies ensure that their systems are working as expected. Well-designed audits can help improve voter confidence in the outcome by checking machine tabulation of ballots, chain of custody, and other essential election processes. Risk-limiting audits of the tabulation are usually more efficient than recounts and often involve fewer resources, but they can still let election officials know if something went wrong in the tabulation of votes.
If candidates try to challenge results in court, would audits provide evidence for those court cases?
While it is impossible to say with certainty what statistical evidence a court will or won’t accept, a well-designed audit can trigger manual examination of most or all ballots if the outcome of a contest is in doubt. Routine audits can reveal questionable outcomes that then may be challenged in courts.