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Kentucky’s close gubernatorial race highlights the importance of scientific evidence regarding election security

The recanvass of votes in the Kentucky gubernatorial race highlights the importance of key scientific evidence regarding election security and integrity, specifically the need for paper ballots and statistically sound post-election audits to inspire confidence in election results. In a race that may be determined by a few thousand votes, election officials cannot conduct a recount because Kentucky’s voting machines are entirely electronic and paperless. Instead, Kentucky county election officials will submit certified vote forms based on totals tabulated by the voting machines themselves and absentee ballots.

From a scientific perspective, the recanvass process is concerning for two reasons:

First, Kentucky is one of the few states still using direct electronic recording voting machines which are fundamentally unverifiable. The scientific evidence is clear that voter-verifiable paper ballots marked either by hand or machine are the most effective way to secure elections from interference or error. As noted in a comprehensive report released last year by the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM), paperless direct electronic recording systems like those used in Kentucky should be removed from service as soon as possible.  Confidence in election results requires the ability to inspect individual ballots. At the EPI Center, we have been reaching out to election officials across the country to provide scientific evidence about voting machines and urge them to remove direct recording electronic machines from service prior to the 2020 election.

Second, the recanvass is not a recount, nor is it a random, scientific audit to determine whether the outcome of the election is accurate. As noted in the NASEM report, a more efficient and statistically sound process is the risk-limiting audit. In a risk-limiting audit, an initial random sample of ballots is examined based on the margin of victory in an election, the total number of cast ballots, and the desired level of confidence in the outcome. If necessary, additional ballots are examined until there is statistical support for the accuracy of the election outcome. This process has been endorsed by the American Statistical Association and the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report regarding election security states that “statistically sound audits may be the simplest and most direct way to ensure confidence in the integrity of the vote.” However, this gold standard approach for post-election audits requires an auditable paper trail – another reason why replacing direct recording electronic machines is essential.

Close elections, such as this one, demonstrate the need for secure, verifiable voting systems alongside rigorous audits to ensure transparent, accurate election results. We hope to see Kentucky continue to invest in improvements to election security prior to the next election. We appreciate the time, money, and resources it takes for local officials to implement new audit procedures or replace equipment they have used for years. However, these changes are essential for the security of our elections and we must all work together to strengthen election security.

The AAAS Center for Scientific Evidence in Public Issues (EPI Center) is a new initiative designed to deliver clear, concise, and actionable scientific evidence to policymakers and other decision-makers.


Michael D. Fernandez

Founding Director, AAAS Center for Scientific Evidence in Public Issues


Kathryn McGrath

Communications Director, AAAS Center for Scientific Evidence in Public Issues

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