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Voting Technology

Public Verification of Software Vote Counts and California’s Manual Count Law

By Kim Alexander, President, California Voter Foundation




In 1965, the California Legislature enacted the manual count law, requiring that a subset of paper ballots be selected at random and counted publicly, by hand, in order to verify that the software used to count all the ballots is accurate and reliable.

Up until 2004, only four states, including California, had laws requiring public verification of vote counts, despite the fact that software has been used throughout the nation to count ballots for decades.  The widespread adoption of paperless, electronic voting machines greatly increased awareness of the risks involved in using computers and private software to cast and count votes.  Many state legislatures have responded to the growing concern about the security risks associated with electronic voting by enacting laws that require there be a voter-verified paper audit trail to back up each electronic ballot, and that these paper audit trails be used to publicly verify software vote counts.

California’s Legislature voted unanimously in 2004 to mandate a voter-verified paper audit trail requirement (SB 1438), and in 2005 voted to strengthen the manual count law by requiring that the voter-verified paper audit trails be used to perform the manual count (SB 370).

Starting with the June 2006 California Primary election, all electronic voting machines must produce a voter-verified paper audit trail, and all electronic voting counties must use these paper audit trails to perform the manual count.  Counties using paper balloting systems will continue to use paper ballots for the manual count.

The manual count process is of the most important, but least scrutinized aspects of the voting process.  This process provides the public with the only opportunity to see for themselves that the software used to count ballots is accurate and reliable.  The California Voter Foundation is committed to improving the manual count process and encourages voters to observe their county’s manual count.

The manual count process takes place in the days following the election and before the results are certified.  Counties have 29 days from the election to finalize and certify the results.  The California Voter Foundation is working with the Secretary of State’s office to maximize public monitoring of the manual count process. 


Text of California’s Manual Count Law

"One percent manual tally" is the public process of manually tallying votes in 1 percent of the precincts, selected at random by the elections official, and in one precinct for each race not included in the randomly selected precincts.  This procedure is conducted during the official canvass to verify the accuracy of the automated count.

During the official canvass of every election in which a voting system is used, the official conducting the election shall conduct a public manual tally of the ballots tabulated by those devices cast in 1 percent of the precincts chosen at random by the elections official.  If 1 percent of the precincts should be less than one whole precinct, the tally shall be conducted in one precinct chosen at random by the elections official.

In addition to the 1 percent count, the elections official shall, for each race not included in the initial group of precincts, count one additional precinct.  The manual tally shall apply only to the race not previously counted.

Additional precincts for the manual tally may be selected at the discretion of the elections official.

19253. (a) On a direct recording electronic voting system, the electronic record of each vote shall be considered the official record of the vote, except as provided in subdivision (b).

(b) (1) The voter verified paper audit trail shall be considered the official paper audit record and shall be used for the required 1-percent manual tally described in Section 15360 and any full recount.

(2) The voter verified paper audit trail shall govern if there is any difference between it and the electronic record during a 1-percent manual tally or full recount.


Seven Steps to a Meaningful Manual Count

1.  Require a statistically significant sample size for the manual count - currently, the sample size varies in states from 1 - 10 percent.

2.  Include all ballots cast in the election for possible inclusion in the manual count (i.e. early voting, absentee and provisional ballot).

3.  Select the precincts to be counted at random.

4.   Make the process for selecting precincts to count open to public observation.

5.  Prepare and publish the procedures for conducting the manual count prior to the election.

6.  Set the date for the manual count well enough in advance to provide ample time to publicize it (at least one week).

7.  Publicize the date, time and location of the manual count on the election agency's web site and through a media advisory.


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This page was first published on February 22, 2006 | Last updated on December 4, 2008
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