GAO Report on Electronic Voting
The full report, dated September 2005, is 107-pages long. Here’s the “Results in Brief” section:
While electronic voting systems hold promise for a more accurate and efficient 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, among other issues. For example, studies found (1) some electronic voting systems did not encrypt cast ballots or system audit logs, and it was possible to alter both without being detected; (2) it was possible to alter the files that define how a ballot looks and works so that the votes for one candidate could be recorded for a different candidate; and (3) vendors installed uncertified versions of voting system software at the local level. It is important to note that many of the reported concerns were drawn from specific system makes and models or from a specific jurisdiction’s election, and that there is a lack of consensus among election officials and other experts on the pervasiveness of the concerns. Nevertheless, some of these concerns were reported to have caused local problems in federal elections—resulting in the loss or miscount of votes—and therefore merit attention.
Federal organizations and nongovernmental groups have issued recommended practices and guidance for improving the election process, including electronic voting systems, as well as general practices for the security and reliability of information systems. For example, in mid-2004, EAC issued a compendium of practices recommended by election experts, including state and local election officials. This compendium includes approaches for making voting processes more secure and reliable through, for example, risk analysis of the voting process, poll worker security training, and chain of custody controls for election day operations, along with practices that are specific to ensuring the security and reliability of different types of electronic voting systems. As another example, in July 2004, the California Institute of Technology and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology issued a report containing recommendations pertaining to testing equipment, retaining audit logs, and physically securing voting systems. In addition to such election-specific practices, numerous recommended practices are available that can be applied to any information system. For instance, we, NIST, and others have issued guidance that emphasizes the importance of incorporating security and reliability into the life cycle of information systems through practices related to security planning and management, risk management, and procurement. The recommended practices in these election-specific and information technology (IT) focused documents provide valuable guidance that, if implemented effectively, should help improve the security and reliability of voting systems.
Since the passage of HAVA in 2002, the federal government has begun a range of actions that are expected to improve the security and reliability of electronic voting systems. Specifically, after beginning operations in January 2004, EAC has led efforts to (1) draft changes to the existing federal voluntary standards for voting systems, including provisions related to security and reliability, (2) develop a process for certifying, decertifying, and recertifying voting systems, (3) establish a program to accredit the national independent testing laboratories that test electronic voting systems against the federal voluntary standards, and (4) develop a software 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 the changes to the voluntary standards have not yet been completed, the system certification and laboratory accreditation programs are still in development, and the software library has not been updated or improved since the 2004 elections. Further, EAC has not defined tasks, processes, and time frames for completing these activities. As a result, it is unclear when the results will be available to assist state and local election officials. In addition to the federal government’s activities, other organizations have actions under way that are intended to improve the security and reliability of electronic voting systems. These actions include developing and obtaining international acceptance for voting system standards, developing voting system software in an open source environment (i.e., not proprietary to any particular company), and cataloging and analyzing reported problems with electronic voting systems.
To improve the security and reliability of electronic voting systems, we are recommending that EAC establish tasks, processes, and time frames for improving the federal voluntary voting system standards, testing capabilities, and management support available to state and local election officials.
EAC and NIST provided written comments on a draft of this report (see apps. V and VI). EAC commissioners agreed with our recommendations and stated that actions on each are either under way or intended. NIST’s director agreed with the report’s conclusions. In addition to their comments on our recommendations, EAC commissioners expressed three concerns with our use of reports produced by others to identify issues with the security and reliability of electronic voting systems. Specifically, EAC sought (1) additional clarification on our sources, (2) context on the extent to which voting system problems are systemic, and (3) substantiation of claims in the reports issued by others. To address these concerns, we provided additional clarification of sources where applicable. Further, we note throughout our report that many issues involved specific system makes and models or circumstances in the elections of specific jurisdictions. We also note that there is a lack of consensus on the pervasiveness of the problems, due in part to a lack of comprehensive information on what system makes and models are used in jurisdictions throughout the country. Additionally, while our work focused on identifying and grouping problems and vulnerabilities identified in issued reports and studies, where appropriate and feasible, we sought additional context, clarification, and corroboration from experts, including election officials, security experts, and key reports’ authors. EAC commissioners also expressed concern that we focus too much on the commission, and noted that it is one of many entities with a role in improving the security and reliability of voting systems. While we agree that EAC is one of many entities with responsibilities for improving the security and reliability of voting systems, we believe that our focus on EAC is appropriate, given its leadership role in defining voting system standards, in establishing programs both to accredit laboratories and to certify voting systems, and in acting as a clearinghouse for improvement efforts across the nation. EAC and NIST officials also provided detailed technical corrections, which we incorporated throughout the report as appropriate.
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