MEMO:

To:        Interested Parties

From:    Congressman Vern Ehlers and Congressman Jim Barcia

RE:        Improving Elections by Raising Standards for Voting Technology

Date:     July 11, 2001

Next Wednesday, the House Science Committee plans to markup H.R. 2275, the Voting Technology Standards Act of 2001.  This bipartisan bill seeks to establish voluntary standards to ensure the accuracy, integrity, security and usability of voting systems.

Why is the bill needed?  While many of the problems that have been discovered since the last elections were primarily related to election administration, many others have been directly attributed to voting technology.  For example, in Florida the now-infamous punch card system has been blamed for literally thousands of spoiled ballots.  A 1987 National Bureau of Standards (now National Institute of Standards and Technology, or NIST) report warned that the technical faults of punch cards and several other kinds of voting technologies were disasters waiting to happen.  However, these findings were not acted upon, and the 1990 FEC standards did not rectify the situation either.  Robust technical standards are needed to prevent similar situations from happening in the future, especially now as States are moving to adopt electronic voting systems.  One significant concern is that, while small numbers of paper or punch-card ballots may be easily manipulated, an entire election can be thrown by rigged software for electronic systems.

What does the bill do?  H.R. 2275 establishes a commission that includes state and local election officials to develop voluntary technical standards for voting machines and systems.  The commission also develops the technical testing specifications used by testing labs to certify that voting systems meet the standards.  In addition, the bill establishes a research program to improve the security, accuracy and integrity of electronic voting systems including potential Internet voting methods, ways to protect voter privacy, and the application of human factors engineering, which include technologies to improve access for persons with disabilities.

Who sits on the new technical standards commission and who determines which standards are set and how?  The commission would be comprised of both elections officials and technical experts who develop the technical standards that they determine are necessary according to rules the commissioners design themselves.  Specifically, the commission is formed by the director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), a representative of the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and two representatives from the National State Elections Directors (NASED), one from each party.  Those four core commissioners then fill out their ranks with whomever they unanimously agree is appropriate, for a total of 13 members.  The bill requires that at least two of those additional members must be local election officials.

Why is NIST involved?  NIST, a part of the Department of Commerce, is trusted by the private industry as an honest broker and is highly sought after for technical expertise by industry, academia, and other government agencies.  Since it began in 1901 as the nation's first federal physical science research laboratory, it has worked closely with the private sector to improve technologies and develop standards for an extremely wide array of devices, like automated teller machines, mammograms and semiconductors.  NIST has recognized expertise in computer security and in developing testing procedures to certify that products meet standards, two areas critical for developing robust technical voting standards.  It is not a regulatory agency.

But I thought most of the voting problems occurred in poor or minority districts?  What does that have to do with voting technology?  According to a study by House Government Reform Committee Democrats, most of the districts with low rates of uncounted ballots were areas of greater affluence with smaller percentages of minorities, but not in all cases.  The study went on to find that the disparities between affluent and low-income districts were much smaller when better technology was used.  Optical scan technology, for example, reduced those disparities to significantly less than 1 percent.  Another study by Caltech and MIT found that the number of spoiled ballots in the 2000 elections were highly dependent upon voting technology.

O.K., but arenít most States solving the problem already by getting rid of their old voting machines like punch cards and adopting new voting technologies?  Many States are indeed planning to purchase new voting technology to replace their old machines.  But this shift creates new, potentially far-reaching vulnerabilities.  For example, almost all new voting technologies rely on computers to tally, record or transmit elections data.  But electronic systems have different, but documented, faults that make them vulnerable to computer viruses, hackers, or other kinds of tampering.  With new electronic technologies, the security, integrity and reliability of the system as a whole becomes much more important, as does the need for technical expertise in the standard setting process.  If we are to avoid potential break-ins or breakdowns of our voting system in the future, it is critical that these new voting machines be designed to the highest standards for accuracy, integrity and computer security.

Does the bill mandate that States adopt these standards?  No, like the current FEC standards system they are voluntary.  Nonetheless, manufacturers of voting technology strive to meet these standards and, in fact, use the certification as a seal of approval.  And, even though many of the problems in the last election were due to the use of voting equipment that had been exempted from FECís standards (for example, while Florida had adopted the FEC standards, it grandfathered in its old punch card machines), States are now purchasing new equipment built to the current FEC standards Ė standards that have been criticized as technically deficient.  Higher standards would prompt manufacturers to develop superior equipment that could resist the threats posed by hackers.

Does the bill attempt to replace entirely the system of standards now developed by the Federal Elections Commission?  No, the bill establishes a commission to develop technical standards only, while administrative standards would be left to the FEC.  Standards dealing with how to open and close a polling place, how to handle a ballot box, or even whether acceptable computer software should be designed to handle open primaries or non-partisan offices, would not be part of part of the technical standards contemplated by the bill.  The commission, by contrast, would provide technical standards, for example, as a way to guarantee the minimum level of security that a voting system as a whole should provide to protect elections data when transmitted over phone lines or the Internet.