Elections:

Federal Program for Certifying Voting Systems Needs to Be Further Defined, Fully Implemented, and Expanded

GAO-08-814: Published: Sep 16, 2008. Publicly Released: Sep 16, 2008.

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The 2002 Help America Vote Act (HAVA) created the Election Assistance Commission (EAC) and, among other things, assigned the commission responsibility for testing and certifying voting systems. In view of concerns about voting systems and the important role EAC plays in certifying them, GAO was asked to determine whether EAC has (1) defined an effective approach to testing and certifying voting systems, (2) followed its defined approach, and (3) developed an effective mechanism to track problems with certified systems and use the results to improve its approach. To accomplish this, GAO compared EAC guidelines and procedures with applicable statutes, guidance, and best practices, and examined the extent to which they have been implemented.

EAC has defined an approach to testing and certifying voting systems that follows a range of relevant practices and statutory requirements associated with a product certification program, including those published by U.S. and international standards organizations, and those reflected in HAVA. EAC, however, has yet to define its approach in sufficient detail to ensure that certification activities are performed thoroughly and consistently. This lack of definition also has caused voting system manufacturers and test laboratories to interpret program requirements differently, and the resultant need to reconcile these differences has contributed to delays in certifying systems that several states were intending to use in the 2008 elections. According to EAC officials, these definitional gaps can be attributed to the program's youth and the commission's limited resources being devoted to other priorities. Nevertheless, they said that they intend to address these gaps, but added that they do not yet have written plans for doing so. EAC has largely followed its defined approach for each of the dozen systems it is in the process of certifying, with one major exception. Specifically, it has not established an effective and efficient repository for certified versions of voting system software, or related procedures and tools, for states and local jurisdictions to use in verifying that their acquired voting systems are identical to what EAC has certified. Further, EAC officials told GAO that they do not have a documented plan or requirements for a permanent solution. As an interim solution, they stated that they will maintain copies of certified versions in file cabinets and mail copies of these versions upon their request by states and local jurisdictions. In GAO's view, this process puts states and local jurisdictions at increased risk of using a version of a system during an election that differs from the certified version. Under its voting system testing and certification program, EAC has broadly described an approach for tracking problems with certified voting systems and using this information to improve its certification program. While this approach is consistent with some aspects of relevant guidance, key elements are either missing or inadequately defined. According to EAC officials, while they intend to address some of these gaps, they do not have documented plans for doing so. In addition, even if EAC defines and implements an effective approach, it would not affect the vast majority of voting systems that are to be used in the 2008 elections. This is because the commission's approach only applies to those voting systems that it has certified, and it is unlikely that any voting systems will be certified in time to be used in the upcoming elections. Moreover, because most states do not currently require EAC certification for their voting systems, it is uncertain if this situation will change relative to future elections. As a result, states and other election jurisdictions are on their own to discover, disclose, and address any shared problems with these noncertified systems.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Matter for Congressional Consideration

    Matter: To address the potentially longstanding void in centrally facilitated problem identification and resolution for non-EAC-certified voting systems, Congress may wish to expand EAC's role under HAVA such that, consistent with both the commission's nonregulatory mission and the voluntary nature of its voting system standards and certification program, EAC is assigned responsibility for providing resources and services to facilitate understanding and resolution of common voting system problems that are not otherwise covered under EAC's certification program, and providing EAC with the resources needed to accomplish this.

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: The Congress has not enacted legislation to expand EAC's role.

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To assist EAC in building upon and evolving its voting systems testing and certification program, the Chair of the EAC should direct the commission's Executive Director to ensure that plans are prepared, approved, and implemented for developing and implementing detailed procedures, review criteria, and documentation requirements to ensure that problems with certified voting systems are effectively tracked and resolved, and that the lessons learned are effectively used to improve the certification program.

    Agency Affected: Election Assistance Commission

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Election Assistance Commission (EAC)implemented this recommendation by developing procedures, criteria, and documentation requirements that track and resolve problems with certified voting systems. Specifically, EAC's "Standard Operating Procedures for Conducting Certification Program Manufacturing Facility Inspections and Field Investigations", released in April 2010, defines roles and responsibilities for identifying and prioritizing manufacturing facilities to be inspected and contains step-by-step procedures for inspections, such as forming the inspection team, preparing an inspection plan, conducting the inspection, and reporting the results. It also defines criteria for determining whether a fielded system has a proper mark of certification, whether it is deployed in the appropriate configuration, and causal factors that underlie reported anomalies. EAC has also issued guidance on information to include in incident reports for both facility inspections and fielded system reviews. Moreover, between March 2011 and May 2012, EAC followed its procedures to initiate an investigation of anomalies with one its certified systems; produce a public report of its findings; issue a finding of non-compliance for the system in question; and then test and eventually certify a new and redesigned version of the system. By taking these actions, the EAC has helped improve the quality of voting systems in use across the country, and thereby foster public confidence in the electoral process.

    Recommendation: To assist EAC in building upon and evolving its voting systems testing and certification program, the Chair of the EAC should direct the commission's Executive Director to ensure that plans are prepared, approved, and implemented for developing and implementing 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.

    Agency Affected: Election Assistance Commission

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: The Election Assistance Commission (EAC) has not implemented the two elements of this recommendation. First, the commission has not established a more accessible and available repository for certified voting system software. EAC's Director for Voting System Testing and Certification stated in September 2012 that the commission will continue to store trusted builds and source code for certified voting systems in a locked, fire-proof safe in its offices rather than with an external repository and will physically package and ship copies of this material to election officials upon request. The director reported that this approach was based on the commission's limited budget and the shortfalls it found with candidate repositories, and that it has effectively satisfied the one request for comparison software it received since our report was issued. However, EAC's current approach remains problematic because several concurrent requests for certified software from election officials could still tax EAC's limited resources and be difficult to satisfy promptly and reliably. Second, the EAC has not established procedures and review criteria for evaluating the effectiveness and efficiency of manufacturer-provided voting system comparison tools. The Program Director told us in September 2012 that the commission requires voting system test laboratories to evaluate such tools and ensure they operate as intended by the manufacturer. However, the commission does not require that manufacturers or testing laboratories apply a standard set of evaluation criteria or test procedures to the tools and the commission has not developed any. Consequently, election jurisdictions still lack an independent framework for determining the accuracy, reliability, security, and usability of manufacturers' software verification tools. The absence of both of these elements of a robust software verification program means that state and local jurisdictions still lack the means to effectively and efficiently verify that voting systems used in federal elections are the same as those certified by EAC.

    Recommendation: To assist EAC in building upon and evolving its voting systems testing and certification program, the Chair of the EAC should direct the commission's Executive Director to ensure that plans are prepared, approved, and implemented for developing and implementing detailed procedures, review criteria, and documentation requirements to ensure that voting system testing and certification review activities are conducted thoroughly, consistently, and verifiably.

    Agency Affected: Election Assistance Commission

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Election Assistance Commission (EAC) has implemented this recommendation by developing and implementing standard operating procedures, specific review criteria, and additional documentation requirements for each step in the certification process (manufacturer registrations, voting system application review, and voting system testing). As of August 2010, the commission had created a standard operating procedure for both its manufacturer registration and voting system applications processes that provides detailed instructions; specifies timeframes for processing, reviewing, and approving applications; and identifies the personnel responsible for performing work. It had also enhanced the review criteria for both processes by defining ambiguous terms (such as "sufficient") found in its voting system guidelines. Documentation requirements were added for both processes, such as requiring the name and title of the reviewer and the Program Director's signature for approval. In addition, EAC significantly strengthened its voting system testing process by updating its Certification Program Requirements Matrix to provide detailed criteria for certain requirements, such as functional testing, wireless security, and the functioning of systems with voter-verifiable paper audit trails. Further, the commission established five defined criteria for approving or rejecting test plans and test reports and issued supplemental guidance specifying threshold criteria systems need to meet in order to be approved. By taking these steps, EAC has helped ensure that its voting system certification activities are conducted thoroughly, consistently, and verifiably.

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