A Deeper Look At E-voting Reform: Testing Labs and Audits

We are continuing (regrettably after some delay) to take a deeper look at Representative Holt’s proposal — The Voter Confidence and Increased Accessibility Act of 2007. In my last post, I discussed his central proposal, which is to mandate that all machines produce voter-verified paper ballots that preserve privacy and are durable. Today I’m going to review his proposals for reforming the testing and certification process and post-election audits.

The computing community has expressed much doubt about the testing and certification process and with good reason. Several independent studies of voting machines have revealed serious security and reliability flaws in voting systems that were already tested and certified as meeting federal standards. Many of these flaws were basic in nature and violated federal standards. It wasn’t clear why the labs weren’t catching these problems. This is largely because the testing and certification process is closed. Vendors pay the labs to conduct the testing against current federal standards; if they pass, the systems are certified. The test results are considered proprietary; therefore, the scope of the testing and the results are not released to the public. Last year, USACM recommended that results be made public so independent experts can determine where the gaps are in the process.

The Holt proposal takes an innovative approach to increase transparency in the process and break the potential conflict of interest from vendors paying the labs for testing. It sets up a system where vendors pay into an escrow account for testing. Then a lab is chosen at random to conduct the certification testing. All of the test protocols, results and communications between the vendor and the lab would be made public. The legislation would also allow the Election Assistance Commission to designate an “expert” to observe the testing process.

The next major part of the Holt legislation is the creation of a new auditing structure for federal elections. Just having a voter-verified paper ballot is only one part of ensuring election integrity. You need to make sure that the electronic count matches the paper records. Some states are already doing random audits of ballot, but there is no commonly excepted practice. For example, California audits one percent of randomly selected precincts, where Arizona has a more complex process requiring at least two percent of the precincts in a county or two precincts, whichever is greater. The Holt legislation would set up a uniform system for federal elections.

At a minimum, three percent of all precincts would be subject to audits. This figure would rise depending on the closeness of the race:

  • If the margin of victory is less than one percent, then ten percent of all precincts are audited.
  • If the margin of victory is between one and two percent, then five percent of all precincts are counted.

In my next post on this legislation, I’ll speculate about the prospects for this legislation.

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