'Crowdsourcing audits': A GOP push to make copies of every cast ballot a public record
One reason Republican lawmakers use to justify a wave of proposed voting restrictions is a lack of faith in the election system. Right or wrong, voters don’t trust the process, and something must be done to restore their confidence.
And while many aspects of the election, down to votes being counted or adjudicated, is already open to the public, Sen. Sonny Borrelli wants to take the next step when it comes to show — not tell.
“We vote in private, but we count in public,” the Lake Havasu City Republican told the Senate Government Committee in January. “And your ballot is a public record, and it should be made transparent.”
Borrelli has sponsored legislation — Senate Bills 1119 and 1629 — that would require the secretary of state to create a searchable database with images of every ballot cast in previous elections. Your filled-out ballot would be viewable online, along with the votes of every other Arizonan who participated in the election.
That doesn’t mean people will know who you vote for — there’s nothing on the paper ballot that could tie a specific voter back to that ballot.
Borrelli said it’s fair to let people see for themselves how voters are filling out their ballots, and to determine for themselves whether those votes were counted properly.
“To make sure that the government is operating properly is the citizens' demand,” Borrelli told KJZZ News.
Elections officials in some other states, like Florida and Maryland, have already met that demand.
“If you're not going to provide the images, then what is happening, people are questioning louder, louder that we're trying to hide something from the public,” said Mark Earley, the supervisor of elections in Leon County, Florida.
Much like Arizona, Florida has a law requiring a sample of ballots to be re-counted after each election. It’s a partial audit of a statistically-significant portion of votes to ensure ballot tabulation machines were counting votes accurately.
“The key problem with that is, first of all, it’s just not a complete audit,” Earley said. “If you’re trying to get rid of all concerns about the election, or validate that the election was, as a whole, accurate, it just seemed like a much better way to do this was by doing a 100% audit.”
Earley spent years working on a system that creates an image of each ballot cast in an election. Essentially, ballots are scanned twice – once by a tabulation machine that provides the official results, and once more through a Clear Audit Machine. That separate system scans ballots images into a database and conducts an electronic count of votes from those images using a different program than the one used in tabulation machines.
The database is available via public records request, and gives anyone the opportunity to count votes — crowdsourcing audits, Earley said.
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The Clear Audit program also generates a report, with details from its own separate vote count. Earley said it’s important to quickly make that information available to the public after an election, “making sure that they felt that they had all the information necessary to trust the results of the election.”
It also has the benefit of helping Leon County officials stay ahead of false election claims.
“They’re creating the infrastructure to counter disinformation,” said Larry Moore, who helped develop the Florida database before he retired as founder of the Clear Ballot Group. “And to the extent that Sonny Borrelli’s legislation can help do that, then it’ll serve a good purpose.”
However, “if it's done wrong, it basically becomes a … kind of an incredible source of disinformation, or allows the spread of disinformation in ways that are very expensive to try to disprove,” Moore warned.
Borrelli’s proposals don’t plan for a comprehensive, 100% audit immediately after each election. Nor does a similar measure, Sen. Kelly Townsend’s SB 1572. Instead, Borrelli tasks the Auditor General with creating an entirely new division to do partial reviews of elections, with a focus on Maricopa and Pima counties – the two largest counties in the state.
Without a detailed analysis of the votes published alongside the ballot image database, Moore fears a repeat of 2021, when Arizona Senate Republicans hired Cyber Ninjas and other inexperienced contractors for its so-called audit. Reports from their election review in Maricopa County made numerous false claims about the election process.
Moore and a team of election experts, who call themselves The Audit Guys, spent considerable time debunking those claims.
“This is asymmetric warfare,” he said. “It's very easy to sow disinformation. It's quite difficult to counter it in a reasonable amount of time.”
And while Cyber Ninjas was able to raise millions of dollars to conduct its flawed analysis of votes cast in Maricopa County, Moore said “there’s no money” in fact-checking that misinformation.
For now, efforts to create a ballot image database in Arizona have stalled in the Senate. Three bills, the two sponsored by Borrelli and a third from Mesa Republican Kelly Townsend, all failed to pass out of the chamber in recent weeks.
But all three bills can be revived for another vote — a motion Borrelli vowed to make.