Ensuring our democratic system isn’t compromised
Long ago, our ancestors decided to throw off the yoke of tyranny and oppression by abandoning absolute monarchy and embracing a republican form of government – the belief that our common interests are best served by a group of elected representatives who would make our laws.
That was more than just a political experiment. Many of our forebears fought and died to secure our rights to that form of government. The power you have at the ballot box is one that could only be dreamed about through much of world history.
In order for that system to work, the people need to know that elections are fair and that their votes count. In fact, eight of the 27 amendments to the U.S. Constitution deal directly with voting or elections. A huge portion of Rhode Island General Law deals strictly with elections, political campaigns and voting. Every safeguard has been adopted to ensure the fairness, legitimacy and accuracy of elections.
That’s why I’ve submitted legislation at the behest of the good government group Common Cause. The bill (2017-S 0413) would require the Board of Elections to establish a post-election audit program to make sure that the equipment and procedures we use to count votes during an election are all working properly. This will go a long way toward ensuring public confidence in election results. In those cases where problems or issues are detected they can be corrected long before the next election cycle. Without the constant scrutiny and examination of election procedures, the democratic system could be called into doubt.
A post-election audit makes sure that all the equipment is functioning well – that election procedures yielded the correct results. During a post-election audit, paper records are checked against the results produced by the voting system to determine accuracy.
In effect, an audit is a partial recount of results to verify that the voting system is accurately recording and counting votes. The legislation would authorize the Board of Elections to audit the results within seven days after an election using established rules and proven methodologies. These audits would not only act as a deterrent to voter fraud, but they would help to avoid a full recount by showing when a recount is necessary, as well as uncovering programming errors, equipment malfunctions and bugs in the system.
And make no mistake, these audits are needed. For example, in the past election, there were ballot formatting errors which caused substantial inaccuracies in the vote counts in both Foster and my hometown of North Kingstown. In North Kingstown, the error produced a wrong outcome – one that made it appear that only a handful of people voted to approve a town referendum. When the ballots were re-run, it turned out that the ballot question had passed.
In both cases, subtle changes had been made in the spacing of words and fill-in ovals that weren’t reflected on the test ballots that were used to calibrate the machines. In this case, the error was caught because the result was so unusual. But had it been a close result, no one would have known that these errors actually undermined the will of the people.
If passed, Rhode Island would join 29 other states that already require post-election audits. This is an excellent way to safeguard our democratic process – and I urge everyone to contact their state senators and representatives and ask them to support this bill.
The author, James C. Sheehan, is a Democratic state senator representing District 36 in North Kingstown and Narragansett. He resides in North Kingstown and teaches social studies at Toll Gate High School.