By Marc Sloan
Tennessee has enacted a new law revamping its current post-election audit requirements and adding new ones to the list. The new legislation institutes a framework for the state to double check elections run by Tennessee’s 95 counties on a broader scale and in a more comprehensive way through a slate of both consistent and random audits. According to the Brennan Center, post-election audits can help ensure votes are tallied correctly and restore public trust in elections. The bill was passed unanimously in both chambers with bipartisan support, but the Voting Rights Lab says the law will restrict voter access and interferes with election administration through taking away power from local officials and giving it to the state.
Enacted into law in summer of 2022, Tennessee SB2675/HB2585 changes post-election procedures to require a new, additional audit process for select county election commissions. The commissions subject to these new audits will be selected randomly by the secretary of state, who must choose three to audit after each August election and six to audit after each November election. These new audits will begin with the first election in 2024. In the meantime, the law includes a provision requiring Williamson County, home to the Senate sponsor of the legislation, to undergo an audit following each election in 2022, in an effort to test the audit process. The original bill called this a “pilot program,” but this language was amended out.
Current law requires that county commissions who use precinct-based optical scanners must conduct automatic audits of the voter-verified paper ballots cast for the top race on the ballot; this new law retains that requirement, even if those election commissions are not otherwise selected for an audit. These audits must take place prior to the certification of the election. Finally, the law requires that all county election commissions not otherwise selected for an audit or required to complete one as part of the law must conduct a performance audit following the certification of each November election.
The law specifies that the secretary of state shall select the methodology for the random audits. The legislation provides for the secretary to choose from a risk limiting audit, a traditional tabulation audit, or a performance audit. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, traditional tabulation audits are usually conducted by hand and compare the paper records with the records tabulated by the voting machines. These audits count every vote, whereas risk limiting audits involve counting a sample of votes and analyzing them using statistical methods determined to limit the risk of certifying an incorrect election outcome. A performance audit, also known as a procedural audit, designates a person or group to review the procedures followed during the election and analyze them for compliance and irregularity.
In addition to the audit requirements, the law provides that for elections in 2022 and 2024, the costs of the audits will be paid by the state. Specifically, county election commissions will be reimbursed for their actual costs, which cannot exceed $50 for the audit setup per machine and 35 cents per ballot audited. The fiscal note for the bill indicates the cost to the state to implement these new audit requirements will exceed $500,000 over the next four years. Part of this expense will be to hire a new certified public accountant to keep up with the changes in audit procedures this law requires. With the rollout of this law set for the November 2022 elections, the state and county elections commissions must prepare to comply with this new legislation.