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Orange County will conduct audit of 2020 presidential election ballots

Ashley Montague votes at Marina Park Community Center in Newport Beach on election day.
Billie Montague, 2, puts an “I voted” sticker on her nose while for waiting for her mother, Ashley Montague, to finish voting at Marina Park Community Center in Newport Beach on election day.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Orange County has announced that it will conduct a voluntary audit of its 2020 presidential election ballots to ensure the integrity of results.

The risk-limiting audit is not required under California law, the Orange County registrar of voters said, but the procedure is meant to provide “strong statistical evidence” that the outcome of the election is correct.

“Conducting a risk-limiting audit is an excellent way to audit elections and provide an important check on the integrity of the election process,” Registrar Neal Kelley said in a news release. “This is a valuable opportunity to utilize the enhanced auditing capability of Orange County’s voting system, while at the same time ensuring that the outcomes are true and correct.”

Nearly 54% of Orange County’s ballots were cast for Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election, according to data from The Times, while 44% voted for Donald Trump.

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Although President Trump has called for recounts in several states amid claims of large-scale voter fraud, Kelley said Monday that the audit is not the same thing as a recount.

Instead, the audit will use an algorithm to help identify and randomly select high-risk ballots to be checked against what was recorded. High-risk ballots might include those in precincts in which voting outcomes were close, or where there was a different turnout than expected, Kelley said.

The procedure will be performed in conjunction with a hand tally of votes from 1% of all precincts — something that has been required of all California counties since the 1960s — and is meant to help streamline that process.

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“I have been a champion of [risk-limiting audits] from the beginning because the reality is that it is much more scientifically sound in terms of finding ballots that might be a problem, and then counting those that are most at risk,” Kelley said. “Statistically, it makes sense.”

Long a Republican stronghold, Orange County’s political makeup has undergone a tectonic shift in recent years. Its 2016 support of Hillary Clinton marked the county’s first time voting for a Democratic presidential candidate since Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936. In 2019, the county’s number of registered Democrats surpassed that of Republicans for the first time since a brief blue burst in the 1970s.

But there are plenty of indications that the GOP remains a viable force in the area, which houses the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and famously nurtured the political career of Ronald Reagan.

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Last month, a rally in Newport Beach brought throngs of Trump supporters to the Pacific Coast Highway, and on Saturday, Trump supporters gathered again at the Huntington Beach Pier to protest Biden’s projected win.

Despite the president’s accusations of fraud, Kelley said the results of Orange County’s risk-limiting audits have been consistently on-target: Their audit of the 2020 primary elections found that not one vote was off.

“This is something the public doesn’t understand,” Kelley said. “A federally certified voting system cannot have a known error of more than 1 in 10 million ballots cast. Tell me, other than maybe medicine, where you have that kind of strict reliance on accuracy. … I’m standing behind it for a reason. The system is precise.”

The first step of the audit will be the establishment of a random seed, which will take place at 9 a.m. Friday at the registrar of voters office in Santa Ana. The seed is a number consisting of at least 20 digits, and each digit will be selected by sequential rolls of a 10-sided die.

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Randomly selected members of the public will take turns rolling the die, or staff members if no members of the public are present.

“Establishing the seed in this manner results in a properly random, and verifiable, selection of individual ballots of examination and audit,” the registrar said, “and ensures the integrity and statistical validity of the risk-limiting audit.”

The election results to be audited will be published on the Orange County registrar of voters website prior to the seed ceremony, and the seed will be published immediately after it is established, officials said. It will include local and statewide contests as well as the presidential election.


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