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What Price Accountability - and Who Pays? Weston, CT and Election Auditing

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weston-neilly_painting.jpg

[Andrew Neilly painting courtesy of Weston Forum via westonct.gov]

The small town of Weston is unhappy after one of its precincts was randomly selected for a statewide audit of voting machines required under Connecticut law.

Auditing laws have become more common in recent years in response to concerns about the accuracy of voting machines. The idea is that jurisdictions shouldn't wait for recounts and close elections to assess the accuracy of their voting systems; rather, they should regularly test their machines to ensure that the number of votes counted match the number of votes cast. That seems sensible - and yet the implementation of such requirements inevitably creates new issues.

In Weston, the town's displeasure is mostly related to the cost of conducting the audit. According to The Daily Weston, town officials estimate that hand-counting three races in the selected precinct will cost the town $2,500 to cover the cost of poll workers to do the count.

Weston's First Selectman calls the audit an "unfunded mandate" - and in one sense, she's correct; there doesn't appear to be any state funding for the costs of the audit. Deliberately or not, Connecticut has shifted the costs of accountability to its towns - and as budgets remain tight that may require a second look. If the State wants an audit but isn't willing to pay, then towns are justified in asking whether such a requirement is fair.

On the other hand, Weston isn't tasked with the audit every time; it just happens to be included in this year's 10 percent sample. In other years, Weston is getting the benefit of audit results (which presumably gives clues about their own machines) from other towns and cities free of charge. From that perspective, the $2,500 Weston will spend this year is merely its share of an ongoing statewide cost. It's fair to ask if the state should require towns to pay - but to the extent that cost is being incurred, the fact that it is randomly distributed and based loosely on population (towns and cities with more voters will have more precincts and thus a higher likelihood of being selected) makes the relative burden seem fairer.

The resistance may not be solely related to cost, however; the quotes in the aforementioned Daily Weston piece suggest that town officials are irritated that they are required to do the audit at all. The First Selectman calls the audit "ridiculous" and the Democrat registrar of voters says ""We have to sit here and count each ballot by hand. I can't believe it ... I am hoping we get this finished in one day, but who knows."

This sentiment is somewhat understandable; in some ways election audits are like balancing a checkbook - not a task that many people enjoy. Yet the information such audits yield can be valuable - even the practice in hand-counting which can be useful in case of a recount.

I think it's safe to say that audits are here to stay in the field of election administration - and while there may need to be a re-examination of cost-shifting arrangements in these tight fiscal times, election officials should be prepared to conduct such audits - whether or not they do so cheerfully.

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