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 July 2005

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Voting Machine Standards Move Forward

by Terry Costlow

In contrast to Florida’s problems in 2000, voting in the 2004 election focused mainly on winners and losers, not on the process of casting and counting ballots. Today, engineers around the country are working together to develop standards that should help make sure that focus continues to be on vote counts rather than the way votes are entered and tabulated.

As more and more jurisdictions adopt electronic voting systems, an ongoing upgrade of standards provides the foundation for these voting machines and their software. The U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC) is currently examining Voluntary Voting Systems Guideline proposals submitted by the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s (NIST) Technical Guidelines Development Committee (TGDC). TGDC supports EAC by providing recommendations on voluntary standards and guidelines related to voting equipment and technologies.

The stakes are high

As EAC Chair Raymundo Martinez recently pointed out, the next big step required by the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) will be to distribute $2.3 billion of federal funding to the 50 states and five voting territories. And those dollars will be augmented by state and local expenditures for new equipment and training.

Interest in this combination of money, technology and government actions was evidenced when the IEEE finished a segment of its Voting Equipment Standard (P1583). “In the spring of 2003, we went to ballot and received 1,000 comments,” said Stephen Berger, chair of IEEE Standards Coordinating Committee 38 (SCC 38). SCC 38 is currently developing two voting standards. The voting equipment standard (P1583) is charged with developing a standard of requirements and evaluation methods for election voting equipment. The standard will provide technical specifications for electronic, mechanical and human factors that manufacturers of voting machines can use or by those purchasing such machines. SCC 38's Electronic Data Interchange Standard (P1622) will develop electronic data interchange formats to be used by components of the voting system for exchange of electronic data.

Though NIST and the IEEE have been working together, the standards are not identical. “At the end of the day, I think a lot of the IEEE material will be included in the EAC document and later we’ll publish a separate IEEE standard that other countries could adopt,” said Berger, who also serves on the NIST committee.

Need for upgraded standards

Consensus seems to exist over the need to upgrade existing standards. “Improved standards are very important. The previous versions are well-known to be deficient,” said David Dill, a Stanford University professor who is involved in vote-monitoring organizations.

“We’re not developing new standards, we’re augmenting those that are already in place,” said an EAC spokeswoman.

The people developing the standards note that while the standards play an important role in developing and deploying voting machines, standards alone won’t solve all the problems American voters can create.

“This will answer the question of ‘what is good enough to be a voting machine,’ it’s the starting gate for vendors. For voting, this minimum requirement needs to be high,” Berger said.

Standards provide the base on which the voting systems will be built, but they will have an enduring impact on both developers and those who must monitor and maintain voting machines over their long lifetimes. Up-to-date standards can help keep costs down, and give buyers some assurance that they are buying the right equipment.

“The lack of standards has been a problem in getting equipment deployed. It creates fear, uncertainty and doubt for the people buying equipment because they’re afraid the standards might change,” Dill said.

Another significant aspect of eliminating the FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) factor is to answer critics who contend that electronic equipment and the data they collect and store can be corrupted through tampering. Voting equipment designers, developers and implementers will be responsible for addressing the lion's share of these concerns, but the base for such secure systems is being developed in standards committees.

“Security is certainly a big aspect of these standards. It’s one of the premier goals,” the EAC spokeswoman said.

Looking forward

Security will be an even greater concern in the further evolution of high-tech voting. Balloting using the Internet has been tested in Michigan caucuses and other areas, but it’s still a long way from widespread acceptance.

Security concerns caused the Department of Defense to scuttle plans to allow overseas military personnel to vote using the Web in the recent presidential election. However, programs are in place to see if Internet voting can be used in next year’s elections.

“EAC tasked NIST to begin working on standards for Internet voting in FY 2006. The focus of these efforts is to meet EAC's obligations to assist the Department of Defense in carrying out another electronic voting demonstration project, as mandated by the FY 2005 National Defense Authorization Act,” the EAC spokeswoman said.

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Terry Costlow has been writing about engineering issues for more than 20 years. He can be reached at todaysengineer@ieee.org.


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