Topic:  Hearing on Improving Voting Technology:  The Role of Standards

Committee:  House Science Committee

Date:  May 22, 2001

Members attending: Chairman Boehlert (R-NY), Ranking Member Hall (D-TX), Smith (R-TX), Morella (R-MD), Rohrabacher (R-CA), Smith (R-MI), Ehlers (R-MI), Lucus (R-OK), Johnson, R-IL), Hart (R-PA), Barcia (D-MI), Honda (D-CA), Woolsey (D-CA), Rivers (D-MI), Jackson-Lee (D-TX), Etheridge (D-NC), Lampson (D-TX), Larson (D-CT), Udall (D-CO), Weiner (D-NY), Baird (D-WA), Matheson (D-UT), Israel (D-NY), and Moore (D-KS).

Panel I:
Dr. Stephen Ansolabehere, Professor of Political Science MIT, Director Caltech-MIT Voting Project;
Dr. Rebecca Mercuri, Assistant Professor, Bryn Mawr College;
Mr. Roy Saltman, Consultant on Election Policy and Technology; and
Dr. Doug Jones, Professor of Computer Science, Univ. of Iowa, Member Iowa board of Examiners for Voting Machines and Electronic Systems

Opening Statements:

Committee Chairman Boehlert said that the federal government should not mandate a “one size-fits-all solution” but instead conduct research on the inner workings of voting systems.  He said the committee next month would report legislation designed to ensure that the federal government play a proper role in strengthening the election system.  He stated that research conducted should focus on the interworkings of voting equipment, the interactions of voters and machines, development of standards, and the development of accreditation laboratories.  He concluded that the Science Committee has a role to play in improving Voting Technologies and that role is through the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

Ranking Member Hall agreed with everything that the Chairman stated and added that the last election highlighted the role of new technologies and the need for standards for those new technologies.

Representative Barcia echoed the Chairman and Ranking members and called for comprehensive, voluntary, technology-neutral standards and for the establishment of an independent voting-system certification procedure.  He also called for increased research into human factors, security, open standards, and internet voting.  He said that NIST should not be the sole arbiter, but should work with States, the FEC, and others to strengthen the standards setting process.

Panel I:

Stephen Ansolabehere gave a brief overview of the CalTech/MIT Voting Technology Project, which is a collaboration to develop improved voting technologies ­ a new machine.  The effort is being funded by the two institutions along with the Carnegie Corporation.  The project is in an initial or learning phase and over the last four months has met with many voting machine manufacturers and election administrators to ascertain what the problems are and to explore ways that they can contribute to solutions.  A report on the initial phase of the project will published at the beginning of July.

The second phase of the project was described as focusing on design.  He said they have identified a number of user interface and security features of existing equipment as well as specific practices in voter registration and polling place administration that can be improved at minimal cost or with cost savings with the use of computer technology.

In addition the project has identified the following areas to be problematic:

1. High rates of uncounted, unmarked, and spoiled ballots;
2. Errors in voter registration databases;
3. Security of electronic voting;
4. Usability and accessibility

Dr. Ansolabehere continued that the project sees the need for three different kinds of standards (minimum criteria, specifications, and best practices) for voting equipment.  With the need for standards outlined he then identified three ways to proceed.  First revise the existing standards process, followed by development of an information clearinghouse about existing equipment, and finally the investment to do independent research on voting systems.  He concluded his remarks by saying funding is the major constraint that states and municipalities face when trying to upgrade their systems and that the Office of Election Administration in the FEC has its own financial constraints.  However he is confident that the US can overcome these problems, and carefully crafted standards can stimulate innovation in new technologies.

Rebecca Mercuri, Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Bryn Mawr College, has investigated voting systems for the last decade, with particular emphasis on electronic equipment (hardware and software) used to collect and tabulate ballots.  Through this research she has identified numerous flaws inherent to the application of computer technology.  These flaws are both technologically and sociologically based, so a quick fix is not readily apparent according to Dr. Mercuri.

Some of the problematic issues she has identified with electronic balloting and tabulation systems are:

1. Fully electronic systems do not provide any way that the voter (or election official) can truly verify that the ballot cast corresponds to that being recorded, transmitted, or tabulated;
2. Electronic balloting and tabulation makes the tasks performed by poll workers, challengers, and election officials purely procedural, and removes any opportunity to perform bipartisan checks;
3. No laws prohibit convicted felons and foreign citizens from working for voting system manufactures, programmers, and administrative personnel;
4. Newly deployed voting equipment fails to perform properly in actual use during each election season;
5. Electronic balloting systems without individual print-outs for examination by the voters do not provide a wholly independent audit trail;
6. Some electronic systems actually make the balloting process more lengthy, tedious, and confusing, by requiring additional keypresses or transactions;
7. Encryption can not be relied on to provide end-to-end privacy assurance;
8. Internet voting provides avenues to the entire planet for malicious denial-of-service attacks, and thus would be very vulnerable;
9. Off-site Internet voting also creates unresolvable problems with authentication, leading to possible loss of voter privacy, and increased opportunities for vote selling;
10. It is not possible to create a standardized voting system that could be used in all municipalities, without treading seriously on States’ rights issues, and without mandating changes in many conflicting election code laws to provide conformity.

Dr. Mercuri recommended that Congress look to the Computer Security Act of 1987, and change the loophole that exempts Congress and thus computer-based voting systems used in Federal elections from these standards.  She notes that the FEC does not now have voting system standards in place, instead States use an obsolete set of suggested practices that were never adopted by all the states.  She also recommends that NIST’s current standards be applied to voting systems.  As part of her Doctorial Dissertation, she performed a detailed evaluation of the Common Criteria against the features of voting systems.  She believes the description in the thesis provides an excellent starting point for the development of a voting standard.  She concluded her remarks by reminding the Committee that technology cannot and does not, at present, provide a solution to the balloting and tabulation problem.  It is therefore crucial that we continue to maintain and impose human checks and balances throughout our election process.

Roy Saltman started by discussing his background as the author of the 1975 and 1988 NIST reports on voting technologies.  He noted that neither of his reports were paid with internal NIST funding.  He recommended to the Committee that even though the Federal government should not conduct national elections it still had a role to play in elections.  Specifically the Federal government should conduct research on voting technologies with particular emphasis into usability and accessibility, the development of national standards, a process to accredit testing laboratories, and provide grants to the states and counties to purchase equipment.  He felt that current FEC standards, which were published in 1990, were in need of updating.  He also said that NIST’s National Voluntary Laboratory Accreditation Program (NVLAP) could assist in laboratory accreditation in the voting industry.

Doug Jones stated that as a member of the Iowa Board of Examiners for Voting Machines he has examined lots of voting equipment and many pieces of equipment have been rejected by his state even though they passed the current FEC National Standards.  His opening statement touched on his concerns with electronic voting and how there is no perfect system.  He also warned against a rush to judgment by Congress, saying that we should not replace the current bad voting systems we have with new systems we don’t fully understand.

In his testimony he cited numerous examples of problems with the current FEC standards, including accuracy standards, standards on software, vote transmission standards, etc. He notes that the two major weaknesses with the current standards.  The first problem is that they are voluntary, a manufacturer who conforms has a marketing advantage over a non-conforming manufacturer, but conformance is not required and only 30 states have adopted the standards.  The second major problem is that they simply fail to cover many issues.  He cited his experience in evaluating machines in Iowa.  He finds many inadequate designs and marginal features have made it through the standards process with no comment.  He also noted that the FEC has contracted with American Management Systems to undertake a revision of the 1990 standards and they should be available for public comment soon.

He concluded that he feels strongly that our current system of standards needs to be updated and strengthened, he is not sure that this justifies stripping completely the FEC of its role in promulgating such standards.  However, he states that the strongest argument for such a change may be that the regulation of the conduct of elections and election campaigns requires expertise quite different from that required to regulate the mechanisms by which we conduct elections.

Question and Answers:

Chairman Boehlert started the question and answer period by asking, “With only 1275 days until the next Presidential election, is there enough time to do something?”

Doug Jones said that it would take considerably longer to replace the current standards.  That even though FEC is expected to release for public comment an update of the current 1990 standards he didn’t think they were going to adequately address all of the problems.

Dr. Mercuri believed that by applying the Common Criteria a solution can be had very quickly.

Roy Saltman discussed how each type of voting machine has it own problems, some worse than others, it would require tremendous amounts of funding to replace just the pre-scored punch cards and that the new electronic voting machines pose problems in terms of auditability.

Dr. Ansolabehere answered that by 2004 punch cards will probably only be used in Illinois and Ohio.  They will likely be replaced with optical scan and DRE machines, but without rigorous standards how confident will people be with these machines.
Ranking Member Hall asked, “What is the most common downfall of turning to computer based voting systems?”

Dr. Ansolabehere believed that usability would be a major problem.  He cited examples of election officials having difficulties with formatting ballots.  There is no tool box they can turn to when developing a format.

Roy Saltman said that auditability issue with DRE machines would be a downfall.  In addition testing and certification of machines would be of concern.

Doug Jones answered that human factors would be a concern.

Representative Ehlers used his opportunity to question the witnesses to state what he believes is necessary to address the problems discussed.  They include the need for more accurate registration; accurate, user friendly, and fool proof voting machines; paper duplicates of completed ballots; and better trained poll workers.

All of the witnesses agreed with Ehlers statements.  Dr. Ansolabehere added that the more feedback to voters (paper receipt) the better.

Representative Barcia then asked, “Why the FEC standards hadn’t been adopted by more states?”

Doug Jones said states have been slow to adopt because by adopting they are pointing out faults with their own election process plus they don’t want to increase the complexity of their election process.  Currently only one lab is certified to do testing.  States view the FEC standards not as minimum criteria but as standards which are insurance against something bad happening.  The states view the FEC as knowing what its doing, but he believes the FEC didn’t bring in the right people to work on the standards.

Representative Barcia followed up by asking, “How often should the standard be updated?”

Doug Jones discussed the fact that FEC is updating the standard and should have it out for public comment.  However, the standard should be updated more often and he is not optimistic the update will solve all the problems.  He cited an example where the standard is vague in terms of sensors that count votes.  He noted that when a recount is conducted it is always done on the same machine because if they used a different machine they would be guaranteed to get a different answer (sensors not calibrated).

Chairman Boehlert then asked if everyone agreed that NIST should be charged in completing this work.

All the witnesses, except Saltman agreed that NIST should have some role to play.  Saltman believed that an independent agency that was bipartisan would be the ideal place for this work to be done.

Additional questions were asked by the following members: Weiner, Johnson, Woolsey, Hart, Lampson, and Jackson-Lee.  Most of the questions were either about sociological factors affecting the election process or were of the same theme as questions previously asked.

Chairman Boehlert ended the hearing by asking the witnesses to provide a written response to the following question/statement.  “If there are there three main impediments to better elections (time, low cost machines, quality of machine), then why not address two (low cost, and quality) and do as some have suggested -- vote over a three day period.

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