Voting System Standards, Testing and Certification

By Katy Owens Hubler | Vol . 23, No. 06 / February 2015

NCSL NewsDid you know?

  • Voting machine standards are usually set in state statute.

  • Standards often address security, functionality, privacy, usability and accessibility.

  • There is a federal program for testing and approving voting systems, but state reliance on it varies.

Protecting the integrity of the electoral process is of utmost importance in the minds of election officials and policymakers. No state wants to be in the evening news due to a glitch in the election process. As technology plays a greater role in elections, it is important to take steps to ensure that voting machines securely and accurately record citizens’ votes. Legislators’ roles may include:

  • Setting standards for what voting machines in the state should do.
  • Determining who tests the machines to make sure they are doing what they should.
  • Establishing a certification process that provides the “go ahead” for jurisdictions to start using the system.

Setting Standards. The overarching goal of voting system standards is to ensure that voting machines work and that the public has confidence in the outcome of the election. While some state statutes on the topic are more general and others set minute technical details, requirements for voting systems typically fall into the following categories.

  1. Security: A “secure” voting machine means one that cannot be tampered with or manipulated. Security begins with requiring that systems accurately record votes as cast but may also address physical security, auditability and prohibiting Internet connectivity.
  2. Functionality: Beyond the basic requirement that a voting machine correctly register and record all votes, statutory requirements for voting machines vary. For example, some states require that voting machines must produce a permanent paper record of each vote. Others may require a machine to be able to accommodate a straight ticket vote.
  3. Privacy: Voters have a right to a secret ballot and to cast their votes in private. The public has an interest in secret ballots, too, so that votes can’t be bought or sold.
  4. Usability: How the ballot is designed and presented—on-screen or on paper—is important to whether voters can easily vote as they intend. Ballots should be well designed with clear instructions and an intuitive interface. Poll workers also need to be able to effectively manage the system.
  5. Accessibility: By federal law, all people, including those with visual, physical or cognitive disabilities, must have the opportunity to independently cast their votes.

The U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC) has created voluntary voting system standards, the most current of which were adopted in 2005. Newer standards have been drafted, although none have yet been adopted. This will likely be one of the first tasks of the newly appointed EAC commissioners, three of whom were sworn in this January. The federal standards provide a foundation on which states can create their own, state-specific guidelines.

Testing. To evaluate whether voting systems comply with their standards, states may use a combination of federal and state tests. Once a system passes these tests, it may be certified at either the federal or state level, or often both.

The Elections Assistance Commission accredits Voting System Test Laboratories to ensure the systems meet federal standards. States frequently use these laboratories to assess whether voting systems meet state-specific requirements. Some states, including Connecticut, Georgia and Indiana, partner with local universities to perform this function.

Certification. This final step permits jurisdictions to begin using the equipment. The goals for certifying voting systems can operate on several levels, from providing indemnification against lawsuits to “checking all the boxes” specified by the state, to revealing the capabilities of the system.

States rely on the federal standards and testing and certification program to varying degrees. Some require full federal certification, others require testing to federal standards, and still others require that a voting system be tested by a federally accredited laboratory. Some states have chosen not to use the federal program. However, even states that do not require federal certification typically use voting systems that have been federally certified. To take advantage of economies of scale, voting system vendors almost exclusively produce systems that meet federal standards.

State Action

Some states that do not use federal standards have the expertise and capacity to sufficiently test voting systems. The Florida Division of Elections has a dedicated Bureau of Voting Systems Certification, and in 2013 California passed legislation that moved away from using federal standards. New standards are set by the secretary of state, who is responsible for testing and certifying new systems.

Many state standards still address lever voting machines—a technology that has been used since the 1890s—and almost all focus on the status quo: machines that scan paper ballots or those that electronically record votes. In 2014, Indiana and Virginia passed legislation that removed or updated old references to voting equipment.

Future voting systems may look vastly different. Standards that contain broader language or that have technical details in administrative code (rather than in statute) provide the flexibility to adapt to the next wave of voting machine innovations. In consultation with local election officials, legislators may want to ask the following questions:

  • Do standards need to be updated? Do they refer to machines and procedures that are no longer in use?
  • Are standards broad and flexible enough to accommodate a new generation of voting machines, whatever that may look like?
  • Are existing or proposed statutes contradictory or technologically impractical?

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