RealTime IT News

Congress Lights Fire Under Vote Systems Agency

The Election Assistance Commission (EAC), which is responsible for certifying labs that test voting machines, said yesterday it has been advised by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to accredit two new independent testing labs.

NIST acts as the technical adviser to the EAC, although the EAC has rejected NIST's advice in the past.

That fact, as well as recent snafus that came to light during and after the November 2006 elections, make it likely that the EAC will come under harsh scrutiny during the current legislative session.

The matter has taken on added urgency in Washington because of a contested Congressional election in Sarasota County, Fla. Eighteen thousand fewer votes were tabulated for that race than other, lesser races held in the same precinct. This raised suspicions that electronic voting machines used in that election are at fault.

The vote count cannot be verified independently because there was no paper record of the votes, and the outcome of that election will likely be decided by Florida courts.

Democratic party leaders in both houses of Congress have said election-system reform is one of the priorities they will address during the first 100 hours of the new session.

Senator Dianne Feinstein, who chairs the Senate Rules and Administration Committee, said she would hold hearings and introduce legislation on electronic voting machines "as soon as possible."

"One-third of voters cast their ballots in the midterm election using new electronic voting machines, and problems arose, not only in Florida, but in various jurisdictions across the country," she said in a statement.

Likewise in the House of Representatives, the new chair of the House Administration Committee, Juanita Millender-McDonald, said "the integrity of electronic voting machines is a number-one priority for the Committee on House Administration."

Last week, Millender-McDonald wrote a letter to the Florida appeals court, which is deciding whether to grant the Democratic challenger in the Sarasota contest access to the source code running the voting machines.

"Now on appeal to your court is the question of access to this evidence, which bears decisively on the prospect of conclusively establishing who was duly elected," the letter from Millender-McDonald said.

Observers expect Millender-McDonald to hold hearings and issue a subpoena for the source code if the Florida courts decide against the challenger.

She is quite familiar with the issue of paper ballots, as she was the ranking member of the Administration Committee and attended hearings on verifiable paper audit trails held this summer and fall.

During those hearings, she questioned EAC chief Donetta Davidson about possible flaws in current voting system guidelines and testing procedures.

The EAC has also come under fire in recent weeks for having failed to reveal that one of the labs responsible for testing software used in electronic voting machines did not receive interim certification and was allowed to continue testing software upgrades during the lead-up to the November election.

The EAC said it received recommendations from the NIST to accredit two test laboratories, iBeta Quality Assurance and SysTest Labs, under the EAC's new Voting System Certification and Laboratory Accreditation Program.

The EAC said it will conduct further reviews of those labs to address non-technical issues, such as conflict-of-interest policies, organizational structure, and record-keeping protocols. After the EAC review, the Commission will vote regarding full accreditation.