When it comes to voting machine technology, the states are at a stand-still. Since the Election Assistance Commission (EAC) has not had a quorum of commissioners for several years, it is unable to approve and update new uniform standards for voting machines. The only standards currently operational were passed in 2005. Many states use these standards for benchmarks when deciding which machines to purchase. Thus, they're now stuck with machines they have had for over ten years -- and many of these are beginning to fail.
Without new standards, vendors are uncertain of what should be included or ultimately will be required for new equipment. Both election administrators and vendors also seek a more efficient and affordable certification process for machines. Some say innovators in the field are deterred from either improving upon current machines or deploying far less expensive off-the-shelf hardware.
Updated standards have been drafted, however, and are waiting for approval whenever the EAC is reconstituted. Many vendors are working on equipment and software design being reviewed under an "innovation class" set of criteria by the EAC's Certification Program. However, some jurisdictions aren't waiting for federal action; instead, they're developing innovative systems through very transparent and public processes; for example, Los Angeles County in California and Travis County in Texas.
Still other activity is occurring in a stakeholder committee -- the IEEE Election Standards Committee -- made up of industry members, academics, election officials, and advocates who are working on standards for data reporting in a common data format. Those standards will improve all election data reporting, make audits and recounts easier, make election night reporting more robust and useful, and help with providing blank ballots to military and overseas absentee voters, in a much more workable format.
The Commission suggested that "either some other body within or apart from the EAC must be in charge of approving standards or the states should adapt their regulations." The IEEE Standards Committee is helping to advance this process. Moreover, states like California have responded to the stand-still by moving the whole process to the state level. California, which used to require all voting systems to be certified to the federal voting machine standards, recently passed a law mandating that the Secretary of State set the standards governing voting systems. The Secretary of State is also now responsible for certification and testing of voting systems used in California and approval of voting system labs.
We urge the Congress to act swiftly in confirming new commissioners so that the EAC can function at full capacity. A federal oversight program is needed to help disseminate uniform guidelines on machines and software, especially because some states are not as familiar with voting technology issues as others. Establishing a minimum baseline for performance standards -- particularly in usability, accessibility and reliability -- makes sense for all jurisdictions. While some states can oversee the testing and certification processes and develop more advanced standards on their own, many lack the resources to do so; all should be able to rely on a federal baseline standard for the foreseeable future.
Finally, Common Cause recommends an additional focus on certifying machines prior to their use in any election and on confirming scientifically that every election outcome is reported accurately. Elections should be structured to provide convincing evidence that the reported outcomes reflect how people voted. This can be accomplished with a combination of compliance audits and risk-limiting audits using voting systems that produce a voter-verifiable paper ballot. More regulation is needed to ensure that the evidence trail is correct and complete: Common Cause recommends mandatory requirements for robust ballot reconciliation, accounting, and verified chain of custody.
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