Snohomish County Tackles Election Security with Risk-Limiting Audit Pilot

01 Aug 2019 9:25 AM | Anonymous

by Kirstin Mueller, Election Security Issue Chair

As we approach the 2020 election, there is increasing focus on election security and the necessity of ensuring that our election results are accurate. The League of Women Voters of Washington (LWWA) recognizes the importance of this and has long advocated for auditing vote results as an evidence-based means to provide confidence in the voting process. Properly performed audits will guard against both deliberate manipulation of the election and software, hardware, or programming problems.

A risk-limiting audit (RLA) is a relatively recent post-election auditing method that can provide high confidence in the accuracy of the outcome of an election. Risk-limiting audits became an option for Washington State county auditors and election directors to perform after the passage of ESHB 2406 in 2018, and are widely considered to be the gold standard of post-election audits. LWVWA actively lobbied for its passage, in addition to providing feedback during the rule-making process. Washington is the third state in the country to pass RLA legislation, behind Colorado and Rhode Island. 

After the February 2019 special election, Snohomish County was the first county in Washington State to pilot a post election RLA. In attendance were local election officials from Snohomish and King counties, Jennifer Morrell of Democracy Fund, and several state election officials including Secretary Wyman. The LWVWA Election Security Issue Chair, Kirstin Mueller, attended as an observer.

How do RLAs work and what is their benefit? RLAs rely on examination of a random sample of voted ballots. The number of ballots examined depends on the risk-limit chosen, the margin of the race, and the number of ballots cast. This type of audit is an efficient and cost-effective way to ensure voters can have high confidence in election outcomes while providing a means for catching errors, bugs, equipment failures, or deliberate fraud.

According to the office of Secretary of State, “The goal of the pilot was to introduce state and local officials to the terms and concepts of RLAs and understand how the process might work with their voting equipment.” The current WAC rules surrounding RLA’s were worked through step by step, with a lot of opportunities for questions and problem solving. Jennifer Morrell provided guidance on the use of an RLA software tool, and shared her experience with successfully conducting RLA’s in Colorado.  

Snohomish County chose the Arlington School bond measure to audit. To start, dice were rolled by each attendee until a 20-digit number was created. This number was then entered into a pseudorandom number generator to determine which ballots would be randomly selected to audit. Once it was determined which ballots were selected, Snohomish County’s election workers began retrieving the ballots. In under three hours (with several breaks), they pulled 171 ballots and entered the votes from the ballots into the RLA software tool. The software tool compared the election workers interpretation of the voted ballot to what the tabulation system recorded for that ballot. One round of auditing was performed, and no discrepancies were found.  

Kudos to Snohomish County for being the first in Washington to pilot an RLA! LWVWA looks forward to supporting further pilots. To learn more about risk-limiting audits and how to get involved in expanding use of this vital tool, contact Kirstin Mueller at


LWVUS Report on Election Auditing

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