Elections:

Federal Efforts to Improve Security and Reliability of Electronic Voting Systems Are Under Way, but Key Activities Need to Be Completed

GAO-05-956: Published: Sep 21, 2005. Publicly Released: Oct 21, 2005.

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The Help America Vote Act of 2002 established the Election Assistance Commission (EAC) to help improve state and local administration of federal elections and authorized funding for state and local governments to expand their use of electronic voting systems. EAC began operations in January 2004. However, reported problems with electronic voting systems have led to questions about the security and reliability of these systems. GAO was requested to (1) determine the significant security and reliability concerns identified about electronic voting systems, (2) identify recommended practices relevant to ensuring the security and reliability of these systems, and (3) describe actions taken or planned to improve their security and reliability.

While electronic voting systems hold promise for improving the election process, numerous entities have raised concerns about their security and reliability, citing instances of weak security controls, system design flaws, inadequate system version control, inadequate security testing, incorrect system configuration, poor security management, and vague or incomplete voting system standards. It is important to note that many of these concerns were based on specific system makes and models or a specific jurisdiction's election, and there is no consensus among election officials and other experts on their pervasiveness. Nevertheless, some have caused problems in elections and therefore merit attention. Federal organizations and nongovernmental groups have issued both election-specific recommended practices for improving the voting process and more general guidance intended to help organizations manage information systems' security and reliability. These recommended practices and guidelines (applicable throughout the voting system life cycle) include having vendors build security controls and audit trails into their systems during development, and having election officials specify security requirements when acquiring systems. Other suggested practices include testing and certifying systems against national voting system standards. The federal government has begun efforts intended to improve life cycle management of electronic voting systems and thereby improve their security and reliability. Specifically, EAC has led efforts to (1) draft changes to existing federal voluntary standards for voting systems, including provisions addressing security and reliability; (2) develop a process for certifying voting systems; (3) establish a program to accredit independent laboratories to test electronic voting systems; and (4) develop a library and clearinghouse for information on state and local elections and systems. However, these actions are unlikely to have a significant effect in the 2006 federal election cycle because important changes to the voting standards have not yet been completed, the system certification and laboratory accreditation programs are still in development, and a system software library has not been updated or improved since the 2004 election. Further, EAC has not consistently defined specific tasks, processes, and time frames for completing these activities; as a result, it is unclear when their results will be available to assist state and local election officials.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Election Assistance Commission (EAC) has developed and implemented three mechanisms to share information on the problems and vulnerabilities of voting systems, and has collaborated with the Technical Guidelines Development Committee (TGDC) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in doing so. As of January 2009, EAC has established: (1) the federal voting system certification program, (2) a national voting system reports clearinghouse, and (3) federal voluntary voting system guidelines. First, the certification program includes provisions to track and resolve problems with EAC-certified voting systems and to share the information with election officials. Second, the voting system reports clearinghouse on EAC's website provides access to voting system reports and studies that have been submitted to EAC by a state or local governments?including studies conducted on systems not certified by EAC. To date, EAC has posted 7 submissions, and several of these identify problems and vulnerabilities with voting systems. Third, EAC, in collaboration with TGDC and NIST, has solicited input from a variety of interested parties in developing the voluntary voting system guidelines, including outreach to those with experience in the problems and vulnerabilities of voting systems, such as through the meetings and workshops conducted from March 2006 to March 2007.

    Recommendation: To improve the potential for benefits to states and local election jurisdictions, the Election Assistance Commission should improve management support to state and local election officials by collaborating with the Technical Guidelines Development Committee and NIST to develop a process and associated time frames for sharing information on the problems and vulnerabilities of voting systems.

    Agency Affected: Election Assistance Commission

  2. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: In 2005, the Election Assistance Commission (EAC) designated the National Institute of Standards and Technology's (NIST) National Software Reference Library (NSRL) to act as the repository for federally-certified software. However, we reported in September 2008 that EAC decided not to use the NSRL repository and had not established another repository, nor had it defined minimum repository requirements. In addition, EAC officials stated at that time that the software repository was intended for its own internal use, thus calling into question what support, if any, the repository would provide to state and local election officials. Furthermore, EAC had not defined how it would ensure that manufacturers provide effective and efficient system identification tools and procedures, such as defining specific criteria for evaluating the tools, and it did not have plans or time frames for establishing either of the two components. As a result, we recommended in our September 2008 report that EAC prepare, approve and implement plans for an accessible and available software repository for testing laboratories to deposit certified versions of voting system software, as well as procedures and review criteria for evaluating related manufacturer-provided tools to support stakeholders in comparing their systems with this repository (GAO-08-814).

    Recommendation: To improve the potential for benefits to states and local election jurisdictions, the Election Assistance Commission should improve management support to state and local election officials by collaborating with NIST to establish a process for continuously updating the National Software Reference Library for voting system software; take effective action to promote use of the library by state and local governments; identify and disseminate information on resources to assist state and local governments with using the library; and assess use of the library by states and local jurisdictions for the purpose of improving library services.

    Agency Affected: Election Assistance Commission

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Election Assistance Commission (EAC) adopted policies and procedures for interim certification of voting system modifications in July 2006. To support its certification efforts, EAC also began operating its national voting system testing laboratory accreditation program in August 2005, when it received the first laboratory applications. As of October 2008, the joint EAC-NIST accreditation program had resulted in national accreditation of five laboratories. In January 2007, EAC terminated the interim system certification program and issued policies and procedures for a full certification program, followed by issuance of a certification management guide for election officials in August 2007. We reported in September 2008 that EAC had made significant progress in implementing this full certification program. Specifically, it had registered 12 voting system manufacturers under the conditions of the program, accepted 9 system certification applications, approved 2 system test plans, and reviewed one test report. We also reported, however, that three areas of the program needed additional definition and implementation to achieve full operational capability -- voting system testing and certification review, the repository for certified systems, and tracking and resolution of problems for the certified systems. In November 2008, EAC described for us its plans for and progress in defining and implementing these remaining certification capabilities.

    Recommendation: To improve the potential for benefits to states and local election jurisdictions, the Election Assistance Commission should expeditiously establish documented policies, criteria, and procedures for certifying voting systems that will be in effect until the national laboratory accreditation program for voting systems becomes fully operational, and define tasks and time frames for achieving the full operational capability of the national voting system certification program.

    Agency Affected: Election Assistance Commission

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In December 2005, the Election Assistance Commission (EAC) finalized the 2005 voluntary voting system guidelines, which improved certain aspects of its standards for voting system security and reliability. Subsequently, EAC began efforts to further develop the guidelines to incorporate additional security and reliability improvements. In August 2007, the Technical Guidelines Development Committee, with the help of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), delivered draft standards to the EAC. According to EAC, this draft represents a complete rewrite of the 2005 guidelines and contains new and expanded material for system security and reliability, among other topics. EAC also specified a four-phase approach to finalizing these standards, including two public comment periods. To date, EAC has obtained the first round of public comments on the draft standards and reviewed them in conjunction with NIST. Based in part on the comments submitted, EAC is planning to revise the 2005 guidelines to clarify ambiguities and improve testing processes, and has developed an implementation plan that includes specific tasks, discrete products, milestones, and contributing organizations. It plans to complete this latest revision of the 2005 guidelines by October 2009. The implementation plan provides similar detail for completing development of the draft 2007 guidelines, which are to be issued by May 2011.

    Recommendation: To improve the potential for benefits to states and local election jurisdictions, the Election Assistance Commission should collaborate with the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the Technical Guidelines Development Committee to define specific tasks, measurable outcomes, milestones, and resource needs required to improve the voting system standards that affect security and reliability of voting systems.

    Agency Affected: Election Assistance Commission

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Election Assistance Commission (EAC) has taken three actions to satisfy this recommendation. First, EAC issued several publications that provide recommended practices related to security and reliability management throughout the system life cycle. These included (1) the 2005 voluntary voting system guidelines, which includes certification criteria for assessing security and reliability throughout the voting system life cycle; (2) the June 2006 Quick Start Management Guide for New Voting Systems which includes several security and reliability practices for election officials to use in the operations and maintenance phases of the voting system life cycle; and (3) the August 2007 Quick Start Management Guide for Voting System Certification which includes information on acceptance testing and security procedures. Second, EAC took steps to ensure that its guidelines incorporate practices that address the problems and vulnerabilities of voting systems. For example, in October 2005, NIST collaborated with EAC to host a threat analysis workshop to reach consensus within the election community on plausible threats to voting systems, and thus inform the development of security requirements for future iterations of the voluntary voting system guidelines. Third, EAC's draft Strategic Plan for 2009-2014 committed to compiling an inventory of potential research projects by July 2009 aimed at improving the administration of elections, which would include practices for managing the security and reliability of voting systems.

    Recommendation: To improve the potential for benefits to states and local election jurisdictions, the Election Assistance Commission should improve management support to state and local election officials by establishing a process and schedule for periodically compiling and disseminating recommended practices related to security and reliability management throughout the system life cycle (including the recommended practices identified in this report) and ensuring that this process uses information on the problems and vulnerabilities of voting systems.

    Agency Affected: Election Assistance Commission

 

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