Testing of voting machines inadequate, election experts say
WASHINGTON - Electronic voting machines are not tested thoroughly enough before being used in elections, voting experts said Thursday.
"The processes that we're talking about here are much more out of control than anyone's willing to admit. There's virtually no control over how software enters a voting machine," Michael Shamos, a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon University, told a House Science Committee subcommittee hearing.
A mishmash of groups and procedures now govern testing and certification of the electronic voting machines that some 50 million voters will use in November. The haphazard process has contributed to growing concerns over the security of the ATM-like machines.
Much of the responsibility so far has fallen to a volunteer organization of retired and active election officials, which has certified three little-known testing companies to verify the integrity of every machine and every line of code in e-voting equipment nationwide.
After the testing companies qualify the machines and software, it's up to state and local election officials to certify them and accept them for use in their jurisdictions. These officials may not have the expertise necessary, and in many states there's nothing stopping an equipment vendor from sending an uncertified software patch directly to a local registrar to install in a machine, experts said.
An executive with one of the three testing companies, Denver-based SysTest Labs LLC, defended her company's work but said the process can break down at the local level. SysTest tests election software.
"At this point there is no standard that tells a jurisdiction how do you go and do this validation, how do you check and see the code you have matches the code that's been qualified by the lab or certified by your state," Carolyn Coggins, director of Independent Testing Authority services at SysTest, told lawmakers.
The Help America Vote Act of 2002 instituted some new procedures, though they've not been fully implemented to date because of delays and lack of funding. The act created an Election Assistance Commission that is supposed to assume more control and recommend new voting machine standards to replace the years-old guidelines now widely used.
Lawmakers said the changes must happen quickly to avoid the voting-machine problems that have occurred in recent elections, including California's March primary, where a power surge made the wrong screens appear on at least half of San Diego County's touchscreens.
"These incidents have raised questions about the reliability of the testing process, the credibility of standards against which the machines are tested, and the laboratories that carry out the tests," said Rep. Vernon Ehlers, R-Mich., chairman of the Science Committee's subcommittee on environment, technology and standards.
Earlier this year, California Secretary of State Kevin Shelley banned the use of a Diebold system after he found uncertified software and other problems that "jeopardized" the outcome of elections in several counties.