RealTime IT News

Voting System Changes Afoot

The Election Assistance Commission (EAC) approved a new voluntary program, which will begin in January, to test and certify voting systems. Not only that, pending federal and state legislation could change the ground rules by requiring election machines to produce some kind of paper-based audit trail.

Under the new program, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) will make recommendations to the EAC regarding the accreditation of laboratories used to test voting systems.

According to some observers, however, the new program retains a flawed legacy from past testing procedures where voting equipment was vetted by so-called independent testing authorities (ITAs).

The problem, according to some critics, is that ITAs are paid by the voting machine vendors. This apparent collusion drew the ire of former EAC Commissioner Deforest Soaries.

"If you come up with software or hardware that you want certified, I don't think you should be the person paying the ITA, because the ITA considers you their client. Not the government, not the voter, not the public, not democracy -- you," he told internetnews.com last month.

Brad Friedman, a prominent critic of electronic voting standards, told internetnews.com that the ITAs "are quite literally in the pocket of the vendors."

According to Bryan Whitener, an EAC spokesman, however, the EAC does not have the legal authority to collect money from voting system manufacturers to pay for the testing of voting systems. But, "if Congress grants the EAC statutory authority to collect and use such funds, we would certainly consider alternative approaches," he said in an e-mail.

The EAC also said that voting systems that do not meet the requirements of the EAC Voluntary Voting System Guideline standards risk being decertified and will be removed from EAC's list of certified voting systems. Also, laboratories will be held accountable under the accreditation requirements and international lab standards and could risk losing accreditation by both EAC and NVLAP if they fail to meet those standards.

Election integrity activists are also hopeful that Democratic Congressman Rush Holt's proposed legislation, H.R. 550, will get passed now that Democrats control the House of Representatives.

But Holt's legislation is also under attack by activists because it does not specifically require that voters select their choices on a piece of paper, leaving the door open for direct record electronic (DRE) machines.

Responding to criticism leveled at him on Friedman's blog, Holt commented that "the point of my legislation is not to certify or decertify specific designs of voting systems, but to require that voters use systems that are verifiable, or as I prefer to say, auditable. (In New Jersey, all voting machines will be rendered independently auditable by 2008 in accordance with state law modeled on H.R. 550.) Auditability should be mandated, period."

He added that "the fact that my legislation does not outlaw the use of electronic machines does not mean that I am against paper-ballot-based voting or that I am in favor of touch-screen machines. In fact, my legislation intentionally avoids dictating technology except for requiring a voter-verified paper ballot. If states and localities choose paper-ballot-based voting, and they do so while still protecting accessibility and privacy for disabled voters, then they have my support."

Holt's spokesman, Matt Dennis, told internetnews.com that "Congressman Holt's legislation would not disallow" a DRE machine hooked up to a printer.