June 30, 2004
To the U.S. Election Assistance Commission
Please consider the following information as you prepare your "best practices" document.
As you probably know, on June 24, the House Science Subcommittee on Environment, Technology, and Standards held a hearing to examine how voting equipment is tested and certified. The experts and Congressmen agreed that the testing and certification process is completely inadequate. Dr. Michael Shamos said the process was "not only broken" but "virtually non-existent." No one present disagreed.
This means that NONE the voting equipment currently in the field has been adequately tested.
Those present at the hearing also agreed that the process cannot be fixed by this November. Certainly the entire process cannot be fixed, but the local pre-election testing could be vastly improved. Adequate local testing would add significantly to the reliability of the election outcomes.
Local pre-election testing is particularly crucial. Here's why. Every voting system includes a key component, called the ballot definition file (BDF), that is never subjected to an outside review. Given that BDFs determine the way votes are recorded and counted, the lack of independent oversight of these files is a major security vulnerability. If BDFs are incorrectly prepared, the wrong candidate could be elected.
BDFs are unique for each election and define all the races and candidates for each precinct. BDFs tell the voting machine software how to interpret a voter's touches on a screen or marks on an optical scan ballot (including absentee ballots), how to record those selections as votes, and how to combine them into the final tally. Local pre-election testing is the only process that checks the accuracy of the BDF constructed for the specific election. For more information on BDFs, see: http://www.votersunite.org/info/ballotprogrammingintro.asp
Based on my nine months of intensive study in this area and interviews with many local election officials, I believe the following recommendations are essential:
First: eliminate the vendors from the pre-election/election/post-election processes as much as possible. When it is necessary to use their services, make sure they are closely supervised and the work they do is open to public oversight.
Second: improve pre-election testing.
For all types of voting machines, pre-election testing must be sufficiently sensitive to detect errors in the way touches on the screen or marks on a ballot are mapped to the result counters. A mis-mapping can cause one candidate's votes to go to the opponent as well as other types of miscounting. Indeed, this has happened in many elections.
Pre-election testing for optical scan machines is inadequate in many counties. Unfortunately, testing on the paperless, unauditable DREs varies from completely inadequate to virtually non-existent. Some counties run the DRE's self test, which is merely a simulation that does not simulate all aspects of an election since no one is pressing the buttons to cast the votes. Some counties simply cast enough ballots to ensure that all the buttons work. Some only test a small percentage of the voting machines. No county that I know of tests its DREs with even a fraction of the thoroughness of optical scanner testing (which is often inadequate as well).
Minimum requirements for pre-election testing should include: