The New York Times

January 8, 2007



Testing the Testers


There is by now no doubt that there are serious problems with electronic voting machines: they fail to record votes, and even flip votes from one candidate to another. Election officials like to defend the machines by noting that they have been certified by independent testing labs. But the certification process has long been deeply flawed, and last week there was even more disturbing news — that the leading testing lab has been unable to meet the federal government’s standards.


Since last summer, Ciber Inc., the largest tester of voting machine software, has been unable to meet federal quality standards that will take effect later this year.


It is disturbing that if Christopher Drew had not reported this in The Times, the public still would not know. The Election Assistance Commission, the agency that evaluates the labs, did not reveal that Ciber fell short, and is still not saying what is wrong. Ciber, which is still working on meeting the standards, did not return our phone call.


Many Americans are using electronic voting machines that were certified by Ciber. Were those certifications done properly? Did whatever deficiencies Ciber has now exist then? No one is saying.


Since many jurisdictions, and some whole states, now use electronic voting machines that do not produce a paper record, certification is extremely important. It is one of the few ways of determining whether a machine wrongly records votes, either by accident or by design.


Even before the news about Ciber, certification was a troubled process. The biggest problem is that the voting machine manufacturers pay the labs to do the examination and certification. This is a conflict of interest. If a lab raises too many concerns, it risks losing a client to a more compliant competitor.


There is also too little transparency. The labs, which see themselves as working for the voting machine companies, do not tell the public when they find problems or what those problems are.


Congress should pass legislation fixing the system. The vendors should continue to pay the costs, but the government should choose and pay the labs. That would make the labs responsive to the correct customer — the public.


It should also enact strong transparency rules. Voters should know how testing is done, and have full and timely access to the results. Congress should also require the Election Assistance Commission to be more open about how it evaluates the labs. If a lab falls short, the public — which may currently be using machines certified by that lab — should be told right away what the deficiencies are.


The veil of secrecy that hangs over certification is good for the companies that make voting machines and for the ones that test them. The government should not be protecting those private interests.


It should be protecting the voting public.


Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company