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Moritz Improves Election Security, But Audits Require State Action PDF Print E-mail
News/Features - Local News
Written by Jeff Ignatius   
Wednesday, 28 October 2009 08:09

Roxanna MoritzThe irony was clear. Earlier this month, Michael D. Elliott came in third place by one vote in the Third Ward primary for Davenport City Council.

Elliott ran for Scott County Auditor - the election administrator for the county - in 2008 on a platform that included election transparency and integrity, including a push for post-election audits. The recount he requested in the city primary gave him the opportunity to test the system.

The recount returned the same results, and Elliott said by e-mail that he was satisfied with the policies and procedures put in place by Auditor Roxanna Mortiz, who defeated him and Steve Ahrens last year: "The process was thorough and documented. Obviously the counts came out correctly. I was also there at one of the precincts to watch the poll be closed, so I pretty much got to see the entire process in action. I am very confident that the system works as it should. ... Moritz was very open and patient and did an excellent job throughout this small election. I'd say it was a good trial before our larger municipal election" next week.

As required by Iowa law, Scott County last year began using exclusively paper ballots, meaning that there is a verifiable paper trail for every vote. Each precinct still has a touchscreen for people with physical disabilities, but it's a ballot-marking machine, retaining the paper record of the vote. (Previously, Scott County used some touchscreen machines that didn't leave a paper record.)

And since taking office in November, Moritz has tightened security around elections. As mandated by the Help America Vote Act and the Iowa administrative code, the auditor's office developed and implemented a written elections-security policy.

"The practices may have already been happening," Moritz said. "There just wasn't anything in writing to ensure that it was happening."

Among the changes were unique identification numbers attached to memory cards, tamper-evident seals on elections equipment and envelopes carrying memory cards, and policies prescribing access to ballots and equipment. For example: "At least two staff members shall be present whenever the GEMS [Global Election Management System, which compiles results from memory cards used at precinct sites] computer is accessed." Memory cards are never outside of an unsealed container without multiple authorized people present.

Moritz has also requested, as a capital expenditure, closed-circuit-television monitoring of six locations and electronic access control. Those security measures would cost $28,840, Mortiz estimated, and she expects those expenditures to be approved by the county board for next fiscal year. If that happens, "when people are counting absentee ballots ... they'll be under camera at all times," she said.

None of this means that the system is foolproof. It does significantly reduce the likelihood of errors, and any fraud would require collusion.

As Scott County Auditor Operations Manager Roland Caldwell said, there is no fraud-proof system.

That's why Elliott continues to push for post-election audits. "There is always a chance that someone can tamper with the system when no one is looking, so I would hope to see, at a minimum, a regular random physical hand count of the ballots to ensure that there has been no tampering with the system," he wrote. "The random count will easily act as a deterrent to fraud ... because of its existence within the regular process."

The problem is that Iowa law forbids post-election audits. The Iowa code states: "The sealed packages containing voted ballots shall be opened only for an official recount ... or to destroy the ballots pursuant to section 50.19."

The problem with this is that even with all the safeguards and redundancies in place, the public has no way of being certain that the machines counting votes are doing it accurately. Recounts accomplish this but must be requested. Standard post-election audits would ensure regular tests.

House File 682 would require post-election audits in elections determining the presidency or the Iowa governor, with the number of randomly chosen precincts to be hand-counted determined by the number of voters in a county. Under the legislation, four Scott County precincts would be used. The bill passed the Iowa House 98-0 on March 23 but didn't advance out of the Senate State Government committee.

Moritz said she supports the bill.

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