Election security is a complex challenge. One essential step, however, is so simple it can be carried out with a pen and paper.
Pennsylvania officials have announced that Philadelphia and Mercer County will conduct a post-election pilot next month of what's called a risk-limiting audit. The procedure is new to most of the country, but 12 states are experimenting with it — because it's that much of a no-brainer.
Currently, 17 states are not required by law to verify the accuracy of their vote tallies at all. Those that are mostly doing so the "traditional" way, which in this case means the wrong way. The process auditors typically use — manually recounting votes in a predetermined percentage of precincts — tells officials whether a particular machine or group of machines is working, but it doesn't actually answer the essential question: Did the declared winner actually win?
Risk-limiting audits instead do what any mathematician would advise. They hand-count a statistically meaningful sample of all votes to determine whether the original tally was correct. The required sample increases as the margin of victory narrows.
It's easy, and it's time-consuming only in the tightest elections, or when something actually has been tampered with. Of course, that's when it's most worth investing the time. So why isn't everyone doing it?
One reason is money. Colorado has performed risk-limiting audits in multiple statewide elections, but what it has learned can't be transferred seamlessly to Rhode Island, which recently passed a law requiring the process starting in 2020, because the nuances of their systems differ. Every state or county needs to polish its own version of what experts call the gold standard for election review, and that takes funding.
The second reason is also money — sort of. Pennsylvania is only able to start testing risk-limiting audits now because it is transitioning to paper from all-electronic systems. This represents another encouraging trend: What voters write down on paper can't be tampered with from Moscow. Sixteen states didn't have paper trails in 2016. That number will likely be halved by 2020. But many states have spent the funds Congress appropriated for election security on switching to paper ballots, leaving little left for figuring out how to recount those ballots once they come in.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has been blocking many election security bills, in part, because he dislikes federal interference. But some of this legislation contains incentives for switching to risk-limiting audits — not the sort of shove from the federal government that McConnell deplores, but a helping hand. He should let states take it to protect against Russia and other adversaries' far less friendly reach.
This editorial is the opinion of The Washington Post's editorial board.