Pa. audit confirms Biden got more votes than Trump, but can’t tell us much else

Marie Albiges Spotlight PA
Spotlight PA
State officials have touted the results of the pilot audit as evidence the November election was administered without error. And while it does suggest a high degree of confidence in the outcome, it cannot answer some of the finer questions about how the election was run.

This article is made possible through Votebeat, a nonpartisan reporting project covering local election integrity and voting access. This article is available for reprint under the terms of Votebeat’s republishing policy.

HARRISBURG — As state officials look to rebuild voter trust following a bruising and contentious presidential election, they are pointing to the results of a new pilot audit they say provide “strong evidence” that the correct winner was named in Pennsylvania.

But a Spotlight PA and Votebeat examination of the underlying data and interviews with experts show the review, known as a risk-limiting audit, is actually quite narrow and cannot speak to the finer details of how well the election was administered on a county-by-county or precinct-level basis.

What’s more, the review was not truly statewide because four counties did not participate.

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“At best, this pilot provided evidence that [President Joe] Biden got more votes than [Donald] Trump in total in the counties that participated in the pilot,” said Philip Stark, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley who invented risk-limiting audits. “That’s different from showing that any equipment worked properly, that the count was accurate, or that Biden won [Pennsylvania].”

The Department of State provided Spotlight PA and Votebeat with the full list of the 45,000 audited ballots more than a month after it announced the audit was complete. The news organizations reviewed the data and confirmed the department’s finding that the results were “within a fraction of a percentage point” of the reported election outcome.

Statewide, Biden won with 50.01% of the vote, according to official election results from the Department of State.

The audit finding came as little surprise to the Wolf administration, election officials and officials at every level of government who have said there was no evidence of widespread voter fraud in the 2020 general election — regardless of false claims stoked by some state GOP lawmakers.

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The pilot audit was one of Kathy Boockvar’s last acts as Pennsylvania’s top election official. The secretary of the Commonwealth resigned last month when her agency disclosed it didn’t properly advertise a constitutional amendment to create a two-year window so adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse could sue the perpetrators and institutions that covered it up.

The Department of State has touted Pennsylvania as a pioneer in piloting risk-limiting audits, saying they can give voters confidence that the election was accurate. Right now, counties are only required by law to audit 2% of ballots cast, or 2,000 ballots, whichever is fewer.

Counties are not required to perform any other type of audit or review on how well an election was administered, including how well poll workers were trained, how mail ballots were processed, and so on.

Experts are increasingly promoting risk-limiting audits because the manual, statistical review of a random sample of ballots confirms the accuracy of the election outcome without having to recount all votes cast unless the margin of victory is extremely small.

A state audit working group in 2019 recommended the Pennsylvania legislature require counties to conduct “enhanced post-election audits” such as risk-limiting audits. House Speaker Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, said in January he’ll introduce legislation requiring counties to do them.

Sen. Bob Mensch, R-Montgomery, said he’ll file legislation requiring the state Auditor General to perform a risk-limiting audit on ballots cast in the 2020 general election.

Liz Howard, who helped with the audit and serves as senior counsel for the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program, testified at a House State Government Committee meeting last month that the pilot served as a test run to get constructive feedback from the election officials who are tasked with conducting it.

“The goal of these pilots is to work together so that everyone can agree on some common sense policies about how to adopt this in Pennsylvania,” she said.

Tammy Patrick, a senior advisor to the elections program at the Democracy Fund, said it’s significant that this audit was a pilot, performed to familiarize the county election officials with the process and let them work out any kinks before the “official” audit happens. That’s not required until the 2022 general election, per a settlement agreement between 2016 Green presidential candidate Jill Stein and the Department of State.

The settlement requires counties to perform “robust” audits of all election results before they are certified. Two other pilot audits have been performed so far — one on two counties’ election results in 2019, and one done across the state in August 2020.

The pilot audit of the 2020 presidential election, completed two months after Biden was declared the winner, was delayed by at least three weeks as counties said they needed more time to create their ballot manifests and pull the required ballots — as many as 5,000 in some larger counties — to be audited.

Greene, Beaver, Franklin, and Lancaster Counties didn’t participate.

Mike Belding, Greene County commissioner and election board chairman, said the county — with a single staff person in the elections office at the time — simply didn’t have the resources to do it, especially in the time frame the state department wanted. The county recently combined the jobs of the budget director and elections director to save money.

“The state is good at, ‘Why don’t you do this and report back to us?’ with no idea what the impact is in hours and work and stuff like that,” Belding said.

He said if the state had sent people to help them with the audit, Greene County would have gladly participated.

Dorene Mandity, Beaver County’s elections director, said she didn’t do the risk-limiting audit because it wasn’t required. Franklin County deputy chief clerk Jean Byers said the staff was preparing to move the voter registration and elections offices and didn’t have time to do the audit. Lancaster County’s interim director Diane Skilling did not return a phone call.

A spokesperson for the Department of State said last month that counties will be asked to audit the results of the May primary elections as well.

“Every such pilot gives the counties valuable experience in carrying out the audits,” the spokesperson, Wanda Murren, said in an email.

In many counties, the election directors performed the audit themselves, something Republicans in the General Assembly have taken issue with.

“If you’re somebody who is concerned — your candidate lost — you’re going to question the audit when it’s not done by somebody independent, or somebody outside of the people who conducted the election,” said Rep. Stan Saylor, R-York, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, at a recent budget hearing. “This is all about integrity.”

Some of those same Republicans asked Congress to reject Pennsylvania’s electoral votes for Biden in December, claiming that Gov. Tom Wolf and Boockvar “undermined” the state’s new vote-by-mail law and the certification of its Electoral College delegation by issuing guidance to county election officials that contradicted state law.

But Boockvar and the U.S. Department of Justice have said the November election was conducted without major irregularities, and multiple courts have ruled Boockvar’s guidance was necessary and legal.

Despite those rulings, several conservative Republicans have filed legislation aiming to roll back the mail-in voting procedures they supported in 2019.

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