Common Sense: Why should audits be Independent?

Note: This is the seventh post in an occasional series on Common Sense Election Integrity, summarizing, updating, and expanding on many previous posts covering election integrity, focused on Connecticut. <previous> <next>

In the last few weeks, since the revelations of Edward Snowdon, we have seen the limits of Congressional “Oversight”, when a small number of legislators have access to the “facts” of the implementation of the Patriot Act, FISA, and NSA. But these facts seem to be “we assure you we are not doing anything wrong”, “our warrants are reviewed by a Court (with the facts of the warrants being secret, and the Court apparently rubber stamping every proposed warrant)” etc.

This situation is not much different from audits that lack independence. One of the requirements of the Principles and Best Practices for Post-Election Audits is Independent Audits.

The authority and regulation of post-election audits should be independent of officials who conduct the elections. The actual work of post-election audits may be best performed by the officials who conduct the elections and their designees.

a. The independence of authority and regulation may be satisfied from resources inside or outside state government.

b. The actual work of post-election audits—i.e. the handling and counting of ballots and reporting the results—may be best performed by the officials who conduct the elections.

We do not find that Connecticut’s Post-Election Audits meet that criteria, since the authority and regulation of our audits are under the control of the Secretary of the State who is also the Chief Elections Official and responsible for selection and approval of election equipment in the State. What we have seen from Official Post-Elecction Audit reports is the dismissal of all differences between audit counts and machine counts as “human error”, largely without investigation. An independent audit should be expected to provide a thorough investigation of questionable results, rather than providing excuses.

We do not audit our own taxes and send the results in to the IRS. They audit our taxes and expect us to be able to justify random items. The IRS does not attribute differences in their information or calculations to their own counting errors! Similarly businesses often have internal independent auditors and external independent auditors to protect the interests of the shareholders. It does not always work but it often does. Given human nature, we could hardly expect non-independent auditors to approach being equally effective.

Other areas of government conduct independent audits often uncovering serious problems, like recent internal audits in the City of Hartford: <read>

The audit, by Chief Auditor H. Patrick Campbell for the city’s Internal Audit Commission, focused on the revenue management unit of the city finance department, which is responsible for the oversight of general fund revenue due the city, about $550 million this year. The auditors found a number of problems, including:

Poor control of lease agreements, rental properties and other revenue-producing arrangements. For example, one city parking lease had not been renegotiated since 2000, for reasons that are unclear, the auditors report.

Lease issues are troubling because they were identified in an earlier audit, which supposedly spurred corrective action. The position of asset manager was created to oversee and manage leases, and a lease, licensing and contract database was to be created.

In this review, the auditors discovered that the asset manager position was eliminated and the database was never completed. Eliminating positions that bring in revenue is eating the seed corn.

151 bounced checks totaling more than $392,000. More than half of these checks had not been followed up and resolved. Nor was it clear whether late or insufficient-fund fees were being charged. Many fees and charges are handled by individual departments; the auditors recommend they be centralized. You can’t have people bouncing checks at city hall and getting away with it.

Missing documentation. The department is supposed to keep track of actual vs. budgeted revenues, to determine what might be causing any discrepancies. The finance department did reviews, apparently, but “documentation to support the reviews and follow-up performed is not maintained on file,” the auditors wrote.

Another example comes form the Connecticut Office of State Ethics audit of Statements of Financial Interests filed by state legislators and other officials.<read> It serves as an example of a positive report, yet finds exceptions, and areas for improvement.

Would we really expect a report as critical as the one in Hartford if it was done by the managers and staff of the department making these significant errors? Would we expect legislators and employees to correctly evaluate and report on the accuracy of their own disclosure statements? Would we trust the results of a positive report written by the individuals involved? Would we expect them to find the suggestions for improvement?

That is why we need independent audits for elections just as we have for other business and government functions.

But when it comes to elections, are independent audits sufficient? Not really. We need public transparency and verifiability as well. The subject of a future post.

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