Michael K. Shaub, November 10th, 2020
What a head-scratching year it has been. Some of our problems may take decades to solve, or even be unsolvable. But some should not be problems at all. If you had told me that the thing that would take COVID off the front page would be the inability of people to count ballots, I would never have believed it.
But the problem is deeper than that. People on both sides over several elections have been concerned about the accuracy and timeliness of the ballot count in several critical states. And they make a number of conflicting claims that the other side quickly finds ways to debunk. The fact is that most states were able to complete credible counts in a short time frame to produce a result that people trust. But controversies in a half dozen states undermine the trust that is necessary to us functioning as the United States.
If we have learned anything, it is that we need ballot counters of unimpeachable integrity and great competence. Beyond that, we need systems that provide a reliable ballot count that defuses voter fraud while providing adequate opportunity for all to vote. CPAs are uniquely qualified to fulfill both needs; the first could be accomplished by the next election. The second is harder to accomplish, but manageable. CPA firms have entire practices built around systems design and testing internal controls, and they could help states develop effective ballot collection and counting systems.
States can improve the effectiveness of those systems by not setting rules that are convoluted and multi-pronged and therefore open themselves up to cheating, undermining the systems. There are good reasons to give extensions and make exceptions for people like those in overseas military service. However, if I give my students two extra weeks to complete an assignment, I promise you that most of them will take two extra weeks. It is incumbent on voters to take some responsibility, not to make it as easy as possible for every single person to vote and undermine the reliability of the system by doing so. In return, those voters have a right to expect that their vote will be counted and that it will be counted accurately.
States will also need to work together to seek out a common technology platform that has long-term support readily available from the software vendor. While states have different budgets and officials must be accountable to the state’s taxpayers, federal support for the effort should be reasonably expected because of the impact of state systems on national elections. All of the major CPA firms are capable of designing and implementing these systems, and they could leverage their implementation experience in early-adopting states to benefit other states. Performing these services for fees sensitive to taxpayers’ ability to pay would be another way for CPAs and technology professionals to contribute to the greater good.
So it is time to give the job of ballot counting in the US to certified public accountants (CPAs). I am proud to be a CPA and to educate future CPAs for our profession. The population of CPAs in the US is more than adequate to provide this service on a pro bono basis, and it would be more helpful to our nation than sponsoring one more fun run or engaging in activities where we bring no more competence to bear than the average person. CPAs are already known for counting ballots for events like the Academy Awards.
People might say that as long as we have competent observers at ballot counts, we don’t need high-powered counters. But any auditor will tell you that financial statements that are consistently produced accurately by clients are a better protection than auditors against misstatement and fraud.
To CPAs, I say that it is our duty to take this on—that we ought to do it. Our job as certified public accountants is to (1) protect the public and (2) maximize truth in the marketplace. That marketplace is usually the financial marketplace, where CPAs both produce and audit financial statements, as well as prepare millions of tax returns. But what better way to protect the public, and even our democracy, than to inject reliability and objectivity into election returns?
CPAs serve others’ interests in many ways, one of the best being the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program that provides income tax help to many who could not otherwise afford it. I have never heard anything but praise for its impact; it is genuinely helpful.
So let’s count the vote and get it right, and promptly. There is one profession that is uniquely prepared to do this, the one with “count” in its name. It is time for CPAs to step up and partner with state and local election officials to make this happen. I am willing to commit 40 hours of my time in future elections to ensure that the count is not perfect, but objectively accurate. We can disagree on the issues and still trust one another that election results are reliable.
What we need is a group of people willing to move forward with this. I challenge all my CPA colleagues to commit to providing 20 hours of service, pro bono, to count the vote in each election going forward. And I encourage election officials to be open-minded about allowing that to happen.
Let’s count the ballots and get it right next time. There is no reason at all to go through this again. Let the CPAs do it.
Michael K. Shaub, CPA, PhD, is clinical professor of accounting and the Deloitte Professional Program Director Professor in the James Benjamin Department of Accounting at Texas A&M University.
Categories: Bottom Line Ethics