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Election Officials Adopt Compromise on Standards

The federal agency writing standards for election systems took a huge step forward in improving how electronic voting machines are audited after elections are held.

The Technical Guidelines Development Committee (TGDC) of the Election Assistance Commission (EAC) unanimously adopted a resolution today that requires "the next generation of voting systems to be software independent."

Yesterday, the TGDC rejected a similar resolution made by Ron Rivest, chair of the TGDC transparency and security subcommittee, that would have made this requirement effective for current machines.

The failed resolution stated that voting systems should not depend solely on the correctness of the software that tallied the votes so that "a previously undetected change or error in the software cannot cause an undetectable change or error in an election outcome."

According to persons familiar with the situation, Rivest spent the evening lobbying members of the TGDC and crafted compromise language that was passed unanimously this morning.

The resolution that was adopted grandfathers machines that are already in use, stating that current security concerns "do not warrant replacing deployed voting systems where Election Assistance Commission Best Practices are used."

But it also requires the VVSG to recognize mounting security threats by "requiring the next generation of voting systems to be software independent."

The resolution also calls for requirements "to ensure that systems that produce independently verifiable voting records are reliable and provide adequate support for audits."

Later today, the TGDC is expected to address security issues regarding wireless capabilities in voting machines and improved standards for the paper-feeding mechanisms for DREs that are equipped with voter verifiable paper audit trails (VVPAT).

Warren Stewart, policy director of VoteTrustUSA, an election integrity advocacy group, said that the TGDC is preventing the full EAC from hearing hard truths about the machines currently in use, but said he was nevertheless hopeful that meaningful reform will be achieved in this area -- in the political arena if not the regulatory arena.

"The fact that they adopted a resolution that says that these changes have to be made some day in the future is a really good thing. But the real effect of this is going to be in providing momentum for legislation at both the federal and local level," he told internetnews.com.

John Gideon, executive director of Voters Unite, said he was disappointed by yesterday's vote, and today's compromise language did nothing to convince him of the reliability of DREs going forward.

"VVPAT is only a placebo and DREs need to go away," he said.

Last week, the National Institute for Technology and Standards (NIST) proposed that the next generation of the VVSG, likely to be in force in 2009, decertify non-software independent DREs.

The NIST report stated that machines currently in use are "more vulnerable to undetected programming errors or malicious code and noted that as a result, "potentially, a single programmer could 'rig' a major election" without being detected.

Today's vote was taken at NIST headquarters in Gaithersburg, Md.

According to an EAC spokesman, the TGDC will report its recommendations to the EAC on Thursday at EAC headquarters in Washington, D.C.

The TGDC is an advisory committee to the EAC and is responsible for writing draft recommendations for voting guidelines. Once the TGDC gives the EAC its recommendations, the EAC will issue an official draft of the VVSG and ask for comments before issuing the final guidelines.

Former election officials and observers have noted that TGDC members have to take political reality into consideration when weighing the technical issues.

While election officials are under powerful political pressure to adhere to the guidelines, the VVSG are voluntary. Deforest Soaries, the former chairman of the EAC, explained that the TGDC cannot run the risk of crafting regulations that are so strict that state election officials decide to ignore them.

"Then you've wasted all of your time, so you have to come up with something that's palatable to the states, that has some scientific integrity, and that takes into account the limited resources that you have. So it's mission impossible," he told internetnews.com in October.

Stewart also noted that "it's a tough position for election officials to admit they spent money on flawed technology."