Ballot tabulation board changes error margin 

Ballot tabulation board changes error margin 

Voters deliver their ballots to a polling station in Tempe on Nov. 3, 2020. Arizona’s Vote Count Verification Committee ruled recently to change the error rate that local election officials use to audit voters’ ballots. (Photo by Matt York/Associated Press)

Arizona election security officials are changing the way they formulate the voting error margin to create more accuracy amid controversy over ballot counts in previous races.

The Vote Count Verification Committee ruled recently to change the error rate that local election officials use to audit voters’ ballots. There have been 10 elections in Maricopa County since the start of 2020, including the Presidential Preference Election.

“Given some of the rhetoric around mail-in ballots and some of the challenges, it seemed like a great opportunity to make the audit requirements more stringent,” said Committee Chair Jennifer Morrell, who is a nationally recognized expert in election auditing.

The committee convened for the first time since September 2020 to decide on a trigger margin that expands voting hand counts. It is composed of seven nonpartisan election security experts, who each have extensive backgrounds in civic technology and on-the-ground democratic voting processes, from across the state and country.

Secretary of State Katie Hobbs appointed all board members, said Murphy Herbert, communications director for the agency.

Members focused on how they could create a consistent margin across the different ways of voting in Arizona, including early voting and Election Day voting, Morrell said. Election officials use this standard to identify potential mistakes or manipulation when interpreting hand-marked ballots and tallying them to match total vote counts.

State statutes require the committee to make limited decisions about the statistical policies that regulate large-scale hand-count procedures for major elections at least ten days before in-person voting. The Committee ruled to set a standard margin threshold at 1% or three ballots, whichever is greater, meaning any amount of error over that indicates a tabulation machine may not be accurately reporting votes.

“There are no national standards for audits,” Morrell said.

Morrell, who serves as an expert with the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, said prior to last week’s change that Arizona had two different standards for the margin of error rate in voting calculations. Ballots filed on Election Day were being evaluated within a 1% error margin, and a 2% or five-ballot error margin, whichever is greater, was applied to early voting ballots.

“The hand count really is more of a human element, and that’s why I personally think it’s a great process,” said Maricopa County Elections Director Rey Valenzuela. “Because it involves citizen boards appointed by the Republicans, Democrats and Libertarians in Maricopa County, which are the parties recognized in Arizona.”

Valenzuela, who has overseen Maricopa County elections for 30 years, said that hand counts legally must begin 24-hours after polls close but do not occur in all 15 counties. According to Arizona law, the sitting party officials of each voting jurisdiction must authorize a hand count with bipartisan election appointees.

Workers perform additional tests on vote tabulation equipment before and after every election to ensure it accurately counts all votes, Valenzuela said.

Maricopa County — the second largest voting district in the United States — has conducted several local elections since the start of 2020.

In late June, the committee members elected Morrell as the new chairperson after former Director of Election Security Ken Matta resigned from his position at the Secretary of State’s Office.

Morrell said her experience as a local elections official in Utah and Colorado informs her understanding of different audit types. She is a partner at The Elections Group and consultant with Democracy Fund, leading the Election Validation Project to increase trust in elections through rigorous audits, standards and testing.

“It’s really at the heart of our democracy, right, that everybody not just have the opportunity to vote, but that they can do so in a way that’s accessible and that they can do so in a way that they feel confident about the outcome of that election,” Morrell said.

The Secretary of State’s Office requested Morrell help to oversee Cyber Ninja’s review of the 2020 general election.