For some people, the stamp of approval from a federal agency is the gold standard for what is good or bad. For example, in some fashion we trust our federal agencies to approve drugs and vehicles. On a state level, we trust our government to license a broad range of professions such as doctors, lawyers, and barbers.
For a decade we’ve heard about the deficiencies of various voting products. We’ve seen headlines about mistakes and legitimate and illegitimate questions raised about the validity of some election outcomes. The public may be wondering why these questions continue to be raised instead of solved. Enter certification.
Virtually every state requires the election equipment used in their state to be certified by the federal authority, the Election Assistance Commission. The EAC relies in part on the reports of organizations such as NASED. In Illinois what that means is that any given piece of election equipment will have gone through three costly certification processes.
What it also means is that after the certification no election equipment company is likely to reenter the process to make minor changes to their equipment or the software that drives it. That means that election officials and voters are often stuck with equipment with known glitches that could be removed but aren’t. Each of these glitches can be overcome and prevented through best practices and testing. But none of them can be eliminated from the system.
Here is an analogy. Imagine that you have a cardiac doctor who went through medical school, interned and assisted in some surgeries, and since being licensed has performed a hundred open heart surgeries. Now imagine that some company has produced a new clamp or scalpel that better suits the needs of cardiac surgeons. Your surgeon wants to use the new device, but is prohibited by state and federal law unless he goes back through medical school and goes back through the internship process.
That’s where we are in the election equipment and software field. Election equipment manufacturers and election officials are prevented from implementing even common sense changes to the software and hardware running elections because of the costly and lengthy certification process.
So what is the solution? Ease up on the certification process, open the source code, increase the preelection testing, and mandate post election auditing.
If you’d like some excellent reading material about this I’d suggest that you read some of the comments from the State of California’s Future of Voting page. The Open Source Digital Voting Foundation also has a sound vision for the future of election equipment. Finally, through the California site I’ve run across Mitch Trachtenberg whose two page summary from the California page is excellent. Trachtenberg also has a number of other items he’s written that are worth a read. I generally wouldn’t go as far as some advocates when it comes to redundancy and I certainly think that doing it on election night is impractical. But I really like the idea of a copy of each ballot being made for post election examination.
It’s an unfortunate irony that the costly certification process has actually resulted in less confidence in our electoral system rather than more. If we want a system that earns the trust of every voter we need to institute post election audits, more extensive testing, and a certification process that is more open and flexible.