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National Issues

Under the Radar: The EAC Proposes A New Program For Testing Voting Machines PDF  | Print |  Email
By Warren Stewart, VoteTrustUSA   
October 18, 2006

As we approach the mid-term elections, with control of both the Senate and Congress hanging on an unsually large number of competitive races, nationwide concern is growing about the accuracy and reliability of voting systems. Lost in the pre-election frenzy, the Election Assistance Commission (EAC) has released a new Voting System Testing and Certification Program (VSTCP), open for public comment until the end of the month and the subject of a public hearing on October 26. The outcome of this review process will have a profound impact on how our votes are cast and counted in 2008 and beyond.


It wasn't supposed to be like this.

The culmination of a process set in motion by the passage of the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) in 2002, the new testing and certification program was intended to ensure “that all voting machines will be accurate, secure and useable." To that end, HAVA created the EAC and tasked them with the development of new voting system standards and a program for testing and certifying them to those standards.


The new testing and certification regime was supposed to be in place by now. Handicapped by delays in the initial nomination process and severely underfunded, the EAC was unable to meet the intended target of January, 2004 for the completion of new standards. The standards were only adopted in December, 2005 and won't become effective until December, 2007. Only after the new standards were in place did the EAC focus on the development of a process for certifying to those standards.

Federal voting systems standards did not exist until 1990 and it wasn’t until the mid-nineties that any sort of national system was established for testing and certifying that the machinery of elections met those standards. In 1994, the National Association of State Election Directors (NASED), with no government funding, began a program in which voting machine vendors contracted with one of three laboratories referred to collectively as Independent Testing Authority (ITA) to test proposed voting systems to standards established by the Federal Election Commission.

While the NASED/ITA process filled a void that urgently needed to be filled, it has met with mixed reviews. Speaking before Congress in 2004, Carnegie Mellon computer scientist Dr. Michael Shamos said “the system we have for testing and certifying voting equipment in this country is not only broken, but it is virtually nonexistent. It must be re-created from scratch or we will never restore public confidence in elections.” Among Dr. Shamos’ first recommendations was that the testing laboratories should not be paid by the vendors. In the current process, the vendors are, in effect, the laboratories’ clients. They operate under non-disclosure agreements with vendors, which keeps testing protocols, results, and other documentation entirely hidden from public oversight.

Noting that many of the voting systems qualified under the current process have demonstrated severe reliability, security, and accuracy problems, Dr. David Wagner, recently told a Congressional committee that since the ITAs are paid by the vendors they are subject to conflicts of interest that raise questions about their ability to effectively safeguard the public interest. "The process lacks transparency, rendering effective public oversight difficult or impossible."

A further weakness of the current process is that independent security experts are barred from performing their own analysis of the system. In the rare cases where independent experts have been able to gain access to source code, they have invariably discovered reliability and security problems.

As the new testing and certification program is developed in response to input from public interest organizations, computer security experts, and concerned citizens, the EAC should be guided by a desire for the greatest possible transparency. A transparent election process is fundamental to democratic governance.
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