UC Berkeley professor calls for audit of presidential election votes

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In the wake of the presidential election’s controversial results, a campus professor has called for an audit of the votes cast to verify that there were no mechanical errors or foul play.

Philip Stark, a campus statistics professor, and Ronald Rivest, a computer science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, wrote a USA Today op-ed earlier this month requesting election officials to use a risk-limiting audit for each state’s ballots. This type of audit would examine random samples of each state’s votes to ensure that each state’s declared winner was actually the candidate people voted for.

“We should always be auditing,” Stark said. “Very small errors (in ballot counting machines) could cause the reported winner to be different from the true winner that a careful inspection of the underlying paper trail would show.”

Among their concerns regarding this particular election is the possibility of hackers tampering with U.S. voter registration databases. Following a Russian-directed hack on the Democratic National Convention in October, concerns that Russian hackers would attempt to influence the outcome of the general election.

One of the challenges, Rivest said, is that there are no federal laws dictating a uniform process for each state to audit their elections, so each state handles their ballot practices differently.

Rivest said the audit is only intended to confirm that the outcome was correct, not to insinuate that the results were wrong or were actually hacked. Auditing elections should be general practice, both to reassure people of the validity of the outcome or to reveal any problems with the results, Stark added.

“I would not be surprised if (the audit results) showed (Donald) Trump won,” Rivest said.“You do the audit because you want to make sure you got the right results for sure in all cases.”

Laura Stoker, a campus political science professor, believes an audit could be useful in gathering research on voters but doubts that anyone interfered with the election results.

“By far the likely explanation is that the polls had sampling bias, or they made a bad judgement of who was going to vote, like the large block of undecided voters who went to Trump,” Stoker said.

Erin Vistnes, a campus sophomore and chief of staff at the Office of the External Affairs Vice President, also thinks an audit is not necessarily the best solution. She believes some people may see calls for an audit as hypocritical after Trump’s campaign faced criticism for accusing election officials of voter fraud, and that there is a statistically low chance that the outcome was incorrect.

To those who might say an audit could prevent people from accepting the outcome of the election and moving on, Stark said audits and recounts are not meant to interfere with a peaceful transfer of power.

“It’s not about interrupting democracy, it’s about doing democracy carefully,” Stark said.

Contact Ashley Wong at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @wongalum.