USACM House Testimony on Voting StandardsDownload PDF
Testimony Submitted for the Record
By the U.S. Public Policy Committee of the Association for
Joint Hearing -- Committee on House Administration and
House Committee on Science
"Voting Machines: Will the New Standards and Guidelines
Help Prevent Future Problems?
July 19, 2006
The U.S. Public Policy Committee for the Association for Computing Machinery
(USACM) commends Congress for reviewing issues related to voting machines, testing
practices and standards. Ensuring that voting is accurate, error-free, secure and
accessible to all registered voters is of great importance. However, as experts in
computing, we have grave reservations about the safeguards in place with many of the
computerized voting technologies being used. New federal standards and a certification
process hold promise for addressing some of these problems, but more must be done
ensure the integrity of our elections. We recommend that Congress and the Election
Assistance Commission (EAC):
• Create a formal feedback process that will ensure that lessons learned from
independent testing and Election Day incidents are translated into best
practices and future standards.
• Make the testing process more transparent by making the testing scope,
methodologies and results available to the public.
• Ensure that the guidance for usability and security standards provides
performance-based requirements and is clear so as to minimize the variance of
human interface designs from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.
• Create a mechanism for interim updates to the standards to reflect emerging
threats, such as newly discovered security defects or attacks.
• Require voter verified paper trails and audits to mitigate the risk associated
with software and hardware flaws.
Testing, Certification and Reporting
Thirty-nine states require federal certification of their voting systems, which is currently
handled by independent testing authorities (ITA). They test the systems against the 2002
Voting System Standards (VSS). Ideally this testing would discover any flaws in the
system and allow for corrections before subsequent elections. However, in May 2006, a
new report1 was issued outlining several security vulnerabilities in one brand of certified
electronic voting machines. Many computer scientists were stunned by the fundamental
nature of these defects, and noted that the reported defects were the most egregious
security vulnerabilities known to date. This was not, however, the first time serious
security vulnerabilities were revealed.2,3,4
There are several gaps in our testing and certification system that need to be addressed
even if we have more robust standards for voting systems. First, there is no corrective
mechanism to ensure that flaws found during testing are fixed before subsequent
elections. Second, the guidelines are being construed quite narrowly; if a flaw is found
that is not explicitly prohibited by the guidelines, a system is still certified. It is unclear
how such flaws can be successfully addressed under the current certification process.
Finally, there is a clear need to create a formal system for reporting problems in the field
and improving the standards based on these reports. This step will allow election
officials throughout the country to be informed of potential problems and that
experiences can inform the federal standards.
Under the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) the EAC is responsible for certifying voting
systems through accredited laboratories. The National Institute of Standards and
Technology (NIST) is taking over the accreditation process of ITAs from the National
Association of State Election Officials. Federal involvement may make the testing and
certification process more independent, but not necessarily more transparent.
Currently, voting machine vendors are the clients of the ITAs. Typically, they are the
only recipients of the testing results, which are considered to be proprietary. This is not
unusual. Certification testing of other products that the public relies on, such as aviation
software and medical devices, is also proprietary. A key difference is that if an aviation
system fails, the failure is reported to the FAA and investigated. If a medical device fails,
the FDA investigates. Where the investigation demonstrates flaws in the management,
manufacture, design, or testing of the aviation system or medical device, these flaws
become public record and the operating rules and or equipment standards are adjusted
accordingly. Investigation reports are public records.
Our country is far from having any such formal system for voting. We should have a
system to ensure that lessons learned from multiple jurisdictions are feedback to vendors,
states and federal officials, and then incorporated into standards and best practices. Often
the real-world conditions of an election reveal errors that have not been detected by
testing. The only organized incident reporting system for voting equipment that has been
employed recently is a limited, all-volunteer project sponsored by several non-profit
Further, Congress should seek to make the certification process and testing results more
transparent, and, like incident reporting, have a formalized system for incorporating the
results into federal standards. The public should know the results of voting system tests
and the certification tests of ITAs. California and New York State are taking steps to
make their processes more transparent. Federal incentives also could strengthen the
independence and transparency of the testing process. Incident reporting and transparent
testing results would make it much more likely that vendors and elections officials would
implement the lessons learned both from their own practices and from other jurisdictions.
The new 2005 Voluntary Voting System Guidelines (VVSG) improve on the 2002 VSS,
but they are not sufficient for ensuring that electronic voting systems are secure, reliable,
usable and verifiable. It is unclear whether the level of guidance in the 2005 VVSG is
adequate to guarantee that all eligible voters will be able to understand and use the new
voting systems. In the area of human factors, the 2005 standards still leave too much to
the discretion of local jurisdictions and are based on functional requirements instead of
performance-based requirements. This is also a general problem with the security
standards. While the EAC recognizes the problem, it is not in a position to act quickly.
The guidelines process is far from timely. The 2005 VVSG will take effect in December
2007 - two years after the standards were approved. In that timeframe it is difficult to
refine the guidelines to handle problems not already covered. NIST is helping develop
the next VVSG, but that will likely not be implemented before elections in 2010. Viruses
and other security attacks operate in minutes and days, not months or years. A new
method of developing and implementing interim guidelines quickly is necessary to
respond to new problems.
Paper Trails and Audits
Even with improved standards and a process more responsive to emerging threats, the
best designed and tested systems will continue to have flaws. We've seen numerous
examples of security threats in software for commercial systems and critical
infrastructures. Flaws, unfortunately, are inherent in any complex software system.
There are formal mathematical proofs that testing is incapable of finding all accidental
software flaws, and finding purposely concealed flaws is even more difficult. It is also
possible to have unanticipated hardware or operational failures as well as accidents that
can corrupt or lose vote totals held in memory of some voting machines.
To mitigate these risks we recommend paper trails and audits. Voting systems should
enable each voter to inspect a physical record to verify that his or her vote has been
accurately cast, and to serve as an independent check on the result produced and stored
by the system. Making those records permanent - not based solely in computer memory -
allows for an accurate recount. We are encouraged by the actions of 36 states that have
either established voter verified paper trails as law or purchased equipment capable of
providing voter verified paper trails.
Thank you for taking the time to consider this important issue. Ensuring that computer
based systems are secure, reliable, usable, and ultimately trustworthy will require
ongoing involvement of technical experts, usability professionals, voting rights
advocates, and dedicated election officials in the U.S. and other countries. We stand
ready to provide technical guidance to Congress on this and other issues. Please contact
ACM's Office of Public Policy should you have any questions at (202) 659-9712.
1 Harri Hursti, May 11, 2004, "Diebold TSx Evalution Black Box Voting," Black Box Voting,
2 Tadayoshi Ohno, Adam Stubblefield, Aviel Rubin, Dan Wallach, May 2004, "Analysis of an Electronic Voting
System, IEEE Symposium on Security and Privacy 2004." IEEE Computer Society Press, http://avirubin.com/vote.pdf
3 RABA Technologies LLC, January 20, 2004. "Trusted Agent Report Diebold AccuVote-TS Voting System,"
4 David Wagner, David Jefferson. Matt Bishop, February 14, 2006, "Security Analysis of the Diebold AccuBasic
Interpreter," California Voting Systems Technology Assessment Advisory Board,