Who Tests Voting Machines?
R. A. Hettinga
rah at shipwright.com
Sun May 30 10:19:12 EDT 2004
The New York Times
May 30, 2004
MAKING VOTES COUNT
Who Tests Voting Machines?
henever questions are raised about the reliability of electronic voting
machines, election officials have a ready response: independent testing.
There is nothing to worry about, they insist, because the software has been
painstakingly reviewed by independent testing authorities to make sure it
is accurate and honest, and then certified by state election officials. But
this process is riddled with problems, including conflicts of interest and
a disturbing lack of transparency. Voters should demand reform, and they
should also keep demanding, as a growing number of Americans are, a
voter-verified paper record of their vote.
Experts have been warning that electronic voting in its current form cannot
be trusted. There is a real danger that elections could be stolen by
nefarious computer code, or that accidental errors could change an
election's outcome. But state officials invariably say that the machines
are tested by federally selected laboratories. The League of Women Voters,
in a paper dismissing calls for voter-verified paper trails, puts its faith
in "the certification and standards process."
But there is, to begin with, a stunning lack of transparency surrounding
this process. Voters have a right to know how voting machine testing is
done. Testing companies disagree, routinely denying government officials
and the public basic information. Kevin Shelley, the California secretary
of state, could not get two companies testing his state's machines to
answer even basic questions. One of them, Wyle Laboratories, refused to
tell us anything about how it tests, or about its testers' credentials. "We
don't discuss our voting machine work," said Dan Reeder, a Wyle spokesman.
Although they are called independent, these labs are selected and paid by
the voting machine companies, not by the government. They can come under
enormous pressure to do reviews quickly, and not to find problems, which
slow things down and create additional costs. Brian Phillips, president of
SysTest Labs, one of three companies that review voting machines, conceded,
"There's going to be the risk of a conflict of interest when you are being
paid by the vendor that you are qualifying product for."
It is difficult to determine what, precisely, the labs do. To ensure there
are no flaws in the software, every line should be scrutinized, but it is
hard to believe this is being done for voting software, which can contain
more than a million lines. Dr. David Dill, a professor of computer science
at Stanford University, calls it "basically an impossible task," and doubts
it is occurring. In any case, he says, "there is no technology that can
find all of the bugs and malicious things in software."
The testing authorities are currently working off 2002 standards that
computer experts say are inadequate. One glaring flaw, notes Rebecca
Mercuri, a Harvard-affiliated computer scientist, is that the standards do
not require examination of any commercial, off-the-shelf software used in
voting machines, even though it can contain flaws that put the integrity of
the whole system in doubt. A study of Maryland's voting machines earlier
this year found that they used Microsoft software that lacked critical
security updates, including one to stop remote attackers from taking over
If so-called independent testing were as effective as its supporters claim,
the certified software should work flawlessly. But there have been
disturbing malfunctions. Software that will be used in Miami-Dade County,
Fla., this year was found to have a troubling error: when it performed an
audit of all of the votes cast, it failed to correctly match voting
machines to their corresponding vote totals.
If independent testing were taken seriously, there would be an absolute bar
on using untested and uncertified software. But when it is expedient,
manufacturers and election officials toss aside the rules without telling
the voters. In California, a state audit found that voters in 17 counties
cast votes last fall on machines with uncertified software. When Georgia's
new voting machines were not working weeks before the 2002 election,
uncertified software that was not approved by any laboratory was added to
every machine in the state.
The system requires a complete overhaul. The Election Assistance
Commission, a newly created federal body, has begun a review, but it has
been slow to start, and it is hamstrung by inadequate finances. The
commission should move rapidly to require a system that includes:
Truly independent laboratories. Government, not the voting machine
companies, must pay for the testing and oversee it.
Transparency. Voters should be told how testing is being done, and the
Rigorous standards. These should spell out in detail how software and
hardware are to be tested, and fix deficiencies computer experts have found.
Tough penalties for violations. Voting machine companies and election
officials who try to pass off uncertified software and hardware as
certified should face civil and criminal penalties.
Mandatory backups. Since it is extremely difficult to know that electronic
voting machines will be certified and functional on Election Day, election
officials should be required to have a nonelectronic system available for
None of these are substitutes for the best protection of all: a
voter-verified paper record, either a printed receipt that voters can see
(but not take with them) for touch-screen machines, or the ballot itself
for optical scan machines. These create a hard record of people's votes
that can be compared to the machine totals to make sure the counts are
honest. It is unlikely testing and certification will ever be a complete
answer to concerns about electronic voting, but they certainly are not now.
R. A. Hettinga <mailto: rah at ibuc.com>
The Internet Bearer Underwriting Corporation <http://www.ibuc.com/>
44 Farquhar Street, Boston, MA 02131 USA
"... however it may deserve respect for its usefulness and antiquity,
[predicting the end of the world] has not been found agreeable to
experience." -- Edward Gibbon, 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire'
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