Just who, exactly, is in charge here when it comes to establishing standards and minimum standards for America's voting machines? In theory, it is the NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology) but voters casting ballots Nov. 4 will be using voting machines not certified by NIST.
NIST only assumed voting machine testing and certification duties two years ago after a request by the EAC (Election Assistance Commission), the federal election board established by the Help America Vote Act of 2002. Even then, participation in EAC's program by the states is voluntary.
Prior to 2006, the National Association of State Election Directors loosely oversaw voting machine standards. The organization turned to five testing labs for certifications of the voluntary guidelines for voting machine standards.
The testing was, at best, hit or miss. In September, Premier Elections Solutions, a subsidiary of Diebold, sent notices to almost 2,000 voting jurisdictions in September about potential problems with the tabulation software in their certified voting machines. According to Premier, the software problems can be found in machines dating back almost a decade.
Premier officials insist a routine crosscheck of ballot totals by poll workers will countercheck the software glitch. Most of the voting machines problems that surfaced in the 2004 national elections were also machines certified by the testing labs.
Since NIST took over voting machine standards, the federal agency has yet to certify a single voting machine meaning machines in use Election Day 2008 do not meet any specific federal standard.
But NIST and EAC moved Oct. 29 to suspend the testing at SysTest Labs, of Denver, Colo., for "numerous non-conformities," including failure to create and validate test methods, improper documentation of testing and unqualified personnel.
"This action pertains to voting systems under review by SysTest to be recommended for certification by the Election Assistance Commission for future elections and is not pertinent to systems already deployed for the 2008 election which were certified under alternative systems," stated the NIST notice to SysTest Labs.
SysTest said it intends to provide procedural and other technical detail and create a detailed plan as outlined by the EAC to address specific concerns. "This suspension of accreditation is procedural in nature," Mark Phillips, SysTest Labs' vice president of Compliance Services, said in a statement. "SysTest Labs stands by the quality of its testing program, and we're confident the company's suspension will be lifted in a timely manner."
In addition to SysTest, there are four other labs accredited by NIST for testing voting machines and systems, including Wyle Laboratories and CIBER of Huntsville, Ala.; iBeta Quality Assurance, also located in Denver; and InfoGard Labs in San Luis Obispo, Calif.
CIBER made headlines in 2006 when it was denied an interim accreditation after NIST assumed responsibility for voting machine standards. Although CIBER has subsequently earned its certification, NIST initially denied the certification for poor quality assurance and failing to maintain adequate testing documentation.
When the polls open Nov. 4, almost 90 percent of voters will cast their ballots on optically scanned paper ballots or electronic machines known as Direct Recording Electronic (DRE) devices, some that leave a paper trail and some that don't.