Chain of custody
By Bev Harris February 14, 2016
• who can vote
• who did vote
• actual ballots as marked by each voter, and
• evidence transfer and storage
Dispute resolution (recounts or litigation) and law enforcement measures need authentic evidentiary records.
Proper accounting requires chain of custody measures, which auditors use to assess information reliability. Accountants take chain of custody seriously and, when absent, auditors often write “we decline to state an opinion” as to the correctness of the record. “Decline to state” indicates a failed audit and sometimes accompanies recommendations to refer a case to law enforcement.
Legitimate elections require public “right to know” (freedom of information) to allow the public and the media to authenticate truth of results. Proper chain of custody safeguards are part of the larger concept of political legitimacy.
In the U.S., elections documents must be retained for 22 months in federal contests.
Handling election records and data must be scrupulously careful in order to demonstrate to the public that there has been no tampering or contamination.
In court cases, chain of custody violations can result in refusal to admit evidence or even throwing a case out. In elections, chain of custody violations can result in “incurable uncertainty” and court orders to redo elections.
Useful chain of custody safeguards for elections
• Standard, public-records-available video surveillance
• Clear identification of all persons present for each essential part of the election process
• Meaningful public physical observation to allow authentication of votes and vote totals by any person.
Election chain of custody issues
The “Australian Paper Ballot” method carefully addresses chain of custody for each phase of the election:
1. Only official ballots used, with ballot accounting required for the number of ballots printed, voted, spoiled, and left over
2. In-person voting required under public observation of who comes in to vote
3. Publicly observable counting of ballots at each precinct
4. Public comparison of aggregated totals with component parts (publication of precinct detail along with total tabulation).
Evolving voting methods have produced systems with significant holes in chain of custody which can call election legitimacy into question. Three voting methods which produce breaches in chain of custody are: vote-by-mail; electronic voting; and Internet voting. These methods make it difficult for the public to verify that: (a) all ballots cast were actually counted; (b) ballots counted were not altered; and (c) unauthorized votes were not added.
When considering solutions
No magic wand solves all problems, but by establishing a series of tests which any voting method must pass in order to be accepted, we can work towards a suite of solutions to improve election integrity.
A litmus test for any voting system should begin with assessing its ability to achieve two essentials:
- Ensure right to vote
- Protect the right of any person to verify the count.
Public chain of custody is but one component of protecting elections, but needs careful consideration when evaluating and voting system.