In This Issue
Voting Technologies
June 1, 2007 Volume 37 Issue 2

E-Voting and Democracy in America

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Author: Gracia Hillman

The U.S. Election Assistance Commission was established in 2002 to ensure that elections are accurate, accessible, and auditable.

American democracy depends on two things—citizen participation and fair and accurate elections—and both of these depend on how well elections are conducted. Administering an election is a complex undertaking that involves numerous people, processes, and machines. The underpinning of fair and accurate elections is voting systems that have been rigorously tested for reliability and accuracy to ensure that every vote on every ballot is counted and reported correctly.

Another important element is an election administration process overseen by skilled management and supported by trained poll workers to minimize errors and maximize security and accessibility. Myriad federal, state, and local laws, policies, regulations, and procedures must be taken into account for there to be accurate, open, accessible, and secure elections.

Election processes are only one part of what makes a democracy work. The other part is citizen participation, which requires that the public have confidence that the election system has a high level of integrity and minimal error. To that end, citizens must be educated about election administration processes, including the systems used for casting and counting votes. The public should have the opportunity to learn about the processes, such as how voting systems are set up and how votes are counted. At a time when electronic voting (e-voting) and other technological advances are transforming elections—creating opportunities for improvement but also raising new challenges—voter confidence in the election system is critical. To ensure that the American election system remains strong, all of these factors must be addressed.

Voting Systems
Election integrity requires accurate, reliable, accessible, and auditable voting systems. The recount of votes in Florida following the November 2000 presidential election exposed the shortcomings of punch-card and lever voting systems. To address these and other concerns about election integrity, the Help America Vote Act (HAVA)1 was signed into law in 2002.

HAVA establishes a number of requirements for voting systems used in federal elections:

  • an opportunity for a voter to change his or her selections independently and privately prior to casting a vote
  • notification of an overvote and the consequences of casting an overvote before the vote is cast
  • a permanent, auditable paper record of votes
  • access for individuals with disabilities, including people who are blind or visually impaired
  • access for people whose first language is not English (when required by Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act)
  • an error rate of no more than one error in 500,000 positions, as established in the 2002 Voting System Standards developed by the Federal Election Commission (FEC)
To comply with HAVA, states now use one or more of the following voting systems—direct record electronic systems (DREs), with or without a voter-verifiable paper audit trail, optical scans, or hybrid systems that function like DREs but mark and produce paper ballots to be scanned. Congress appropriated $3 billion in funding to help states2 meet these and other HAVA mandates.

The passage of HAVA marked the first time the federal government assumed responsibility for the testing, certification, decertification, and recertification of voting system hardware and software. That responsibility is assigned to the Election Assistance Commission (EAC), an independent, bipartisan commission created by HAVA and established in December 2003. EAC administers payments to states, develops guidance for meeting HAVA requirements, adopts voluntary voting-system guidelines, accredits voting-system test laboratories, certifies voting equipment, and serves as a national clearinghouse and resource for information about election administration.

HAVA requires that EAC develop guidelines and establish a program for testing voting systems that includes the accreditation of independent test authorities (or test laboratories). The guidelines, testing, and accreditation processes (described below) provide a means of determining whether voting systems meet the HAVA baseline requirements, as well as the more descriptive and demanding standards of the voluntary voting-system guidelines developed by EAC to assure election officials and voters that voting systems are accurate, reliable, accessible, and auditable.

Voluntary Voting-System Guidelines
The first set of national voting-system standards was created in 1990, and updated in 2002, by the FEC. HAVA transferred responsibility for setting standards to EAC that same year and mandated that a new iteration of the standards be developed to address (1) advancements in information security and computer technologies, (2) issues related to error rates, and (3) accessibility for disabled voters. HAVA also required that the standards be called voluntary guidelines, rather than voting-system standards.

Since 2004, EAC has been working with a federal advisory committee, the Technical Guidelines Development Committee (TGDC),3 and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)4 to develop updated voluntary voting-system guidelines that prescribe technical requirements for performance and identify testing protocols for determining how well systems meet these requirements.

In consultation with experts in technology and accessibility and election officials, TGDC and NIST completed the first draft of the new two-volume Voluntary Voting System Guidelines5 in May 2005 (VVSG 2005). To ensure compliance with the time limitations imposed by HAVA, EAC, TGDC, and NIST agreed that this first set of guidelines would be an update of the 2002 voting-system standards. EAC then took the guidelines further to address security and accessibility issues.

Volume I, Voting System Performance Guidelines, includes requirements for the human factors of accessibility and usability, the distribution of voting-system software, validation of systems set-up, and standards for wireless communications. This volume provides an overview of the requirements for independent verification systems, including requirements for voter-verifiable paper audit trail (VVPAT) for states that require this feature for their voting systems. Volume I also includes a requirement that all voting-system vendors submit software to a national repository so that local election officials can be sure that the software they purchase is the same software that was certified by EAC. Volume II, National Certification Testing Guidelines, describes the components of the national certification testing process for voting systems, which will be performed by independent test laboratories accredited by EAC (described below).

Before adopting VVSG 2005, EAC conducted a thorough, transparent process that included releasing the proposed guidelines for a 90-day period of public comment. During this time, EAC received, catalogued, and reviewed more than 6,000 comments6 and held public hearings7 in New York City; Pasadena, California; and Denver, Colorado.

Significant work remains to be done to develop comprehensive guidelines and testing methods for assessing voting systems and ensuring that they keep pace with technological advances. EAC expects to receive a draft document from the TGDC in July 2007 that will completely update the standards of 2002 and significantly revise and expand the requirements in VVSG 2005.

Testing and Certification of Voting Systems and Laboratory Accreditation
To fulfill its responsibility for certifying voting systems, EAC has developed a comprehensive program to provide rigorous, thorough testing of all voting systems against the guidelines in VVSG 2005. The laboratories that test voting systems are certified by EAC under a national program for accrediting voting-system testing laboratories. NIST’s National Voluntary Laboratory Accreditation Program8 does the initial screening and evaluations of testing laboratories. Once NIST determines that a laboratory is competent to test systems, the NIST director recommends that EAC accredit that laboratory. EAC then makes the determination about accrediting the lab, issues an accreditation certificate, maintains a register of accredited labs, and posts this information on its website. NIST will perform periodic reevaluations to verify that the labs continue to meet the accreditation criteria.

Much work remains
to be done on guidelines
and voting systems.

In January 2007, EAC implemented the permanent Voting System Testing and Certification Program,9 which includes assessment of quality control, field monitoring, criteria for the decertification of voting systems, and provision of public access to certification information. Under this program, EAC receives requests for manufacturer registration, which must be completed before a manufacturer can submit a system for testing by an EAC-accredited testing laboratory. If EAC technical experts determine that the lab’s assessment report is in order and the system conforms to the applicable voting-system guidelines, they recommend that EAC grant the system certification. Once certified, a system may bear an EAC certification sticker and may be marketed as having obtained EAC certification.

As the EAC testing and certification program is developed further, it will establish uniform methods for testing voting equipment. Currently, accredited laboratories develop their own methods. Once uniform test methods have been adopted, however, every accredited lab will use the same methods to determine if a voting system conforms to VVSG 2005. The development of uniform test methods for each type and make of voting system will begin in 2007 but is likely to take several years because of the complexity of the task and the length of time required to develop each method.

These hallmark federal programs will shed light on the rigorous processes that ensure accurate and reliable voting systems. Information about EAC-accredited laboratories and systems tested through EAC’s programs are available on the EAC website. EAC has developed these programs with the understanding that public confidence is critical to the election process and that public confidence must be based on public knowledge of that process.

The development of uniform
test methods is likely to
take several years.

State Testing of Voting Systems
Federal and state governments must work together to ensure election integrity. Under HAVA, every state retains responsibility for how federal elections are administered in that state. In addition, states determine the type of voting equipment and the testing and certification protocols they prefer. EAC’s voting system guidelines and testing and certification programs were established to give states an opportunity to adopt them voluntarily. If a state decides to adopt them, the federal programs usually become mandatory throughout that state and apply to local jurisdictions.

Most states have elected to require federal certification of their voting systems. However, many states also have their own testing and certification processes, which they continue to perform in addition to the federal processes. This redundancy ensures the accuracy and reliability of voting systems. Thus some states test voting systems only to their state requirements, while others re-test to the standards required under the federal programs.

Testing protocols at the state and local jurisdiction levels include acceptance testing when a voting system is received from the manufacturer to determine that the system functions properly and has been configured to the specifications in the purchase contract. Acceptance testing is generally rigorous and, ideally, is conducted with the assistance of a third-party technical advisor who understands the technology and is independent of the manufacturer. Acceptance tests should include the functions the equipment will be required to perform in an election. If the equipment does not perform properly, it should be rejected and returned to the manufacturer.

State and local election officials also conduct logic and accuracy testing on voting equipment prior to each election. This testing involves loading the system with an actual ballot that will be used in a pending election and testing to determine that the system accurately records the votes on that ballot. Although logic and accuracy testing should be performed on every piece of voting equipment used in an election, resources do not always permit testing at that level.

Many election jurisdictions rely on the manufacturer or vendors to conduct these tests. However, the election jurisdictions will have greater independence and the public will have greater confidence in the equipment if independent third-party technical advisors are involved. One model for such an arrangement is a cooperative agreement between the Georgia secretary of state and the Election Systems Center at Kennesaw State University.10

Commitment to detail, continuous improvements in technology, and vigilance in all areas affecting election integrity are necessary to reinforce public confidence in the election process.

Election Management and Administration
Focusing solely on the reliability of voting systems is not enough to ensure accuracy in an election. Accurate, reliable election results require not only thorough testing of the equipment at multiple levels, but also training and adequate resources for election officials and poll workers. Federal and state certification of a system cannot replace solid, thorough management procedures for every aspect of election administration at the state and local levels.

Voting System Management Guidelines
In 2005, EAC began work on comprehensive management guidelines to supplement VVSG 2005. The management guidelines, which will be completed in 2007, focus on procedures related to the use of voting equipment and related aspects of election administration.

Four Quick Start Guides11 were distributed to election officials prior to the 2006 election to provide some guidance until the comprehensive guidelines are completed. These guides, summaries of chapters in the management guidelines, cover the introduction of a new voting system (Figure 1), ballot preparation (Figure 2), voting system security (Figure 3), and training for poll workers (Figure 4).
FIGURE 1 Quick Start Guide for New Voting Systems. This guide provides a summary of processes and procedures for introducing a new voting system. Topics include receiving and testing equipment; tips for implementation, such as conducting a mock election and developing contingency plans; system programming; and management strategies for election day, including opening the polls, processing voters, and closing the polls.

FIGURE 2 Quick Start Guide for Ballot Preparation/Printing and Pre-Election Testing. Ballot preparation and logic and accuracy testing are essential to ensuring a smooth election. This guide offers tips for preparing and printing ballots to ensure compatibility with the voting system and pre-election logic and accuracy testing for hardware and software.
FIGURE 3 Quick Start Guide for Voting System Security. This guide highlights priority items essential to ensuring the security of electronic voting systems and recommendations for maintaining passwords, physical security, personnel security, and procedures for securing equipment.
FIGURE 4 Quick Start Guide for Poll Workers. This guide provides information to help election managers identify, recruit, train, and assign poll workers who can take responsibility for the care, custody, and use of voting systems on election day.

Reviewing Voting System Operation
Proper administration of elections requires reviewing the operation of voting systems before, during, and after an election. Recounts, audits, and parallel testing can help ensure that voting equipment performs properly and calculates votes accurately.

Recounts and Audits
Recounts are a common method of reviewing the performance of voting equipment. Many states require recounts only under certain conditions, such as a close race. Other states mandate recounts of a certain percentage of ballots after every election regardless of the outcome. Some states call these automatic recounts audits. Both audits and recounts are often done manually.

HAVA requires that all voting systems produce a form of paper record that can be audited or recounted. Optical-scan systems use paper ballots, which provide a paper record that can be audited or recounted. DREs are required to produce a paper record that shows every vote that was cast on the voting system. This record is produced in randomized order to avoid association with particular voters and is obtained from the internal memory of the DRE. Some DREs can produce a VVPAT; this is also produced from the computer’s internal memory but is generated contemporaneously with voting and prior to the casting of a ballot. Thus the voter can verify that the computer-generated image on the screen is the same as the computer-generated print-out. The quality of the paper used for VVPAT records is important, especially for manual recounts.

Parallel Testing
Parallel testing, a relatively new practice in monitoring the accuracy of an election, is usually conducted during the election. Several voting systems are set up as “sample systems” on which election personnel cast votes during the regularly scheduled election. Some states and local jurisdictions prefer to conduct parallel testing prior to the election. Either way, the process is the same. Known votes are entered onto the DRE system and counted. The system is deemed to be operating properly if the hand count of the ballots matches the computer tally.

Transparency and Accountability
Implementing these extensive and rigorous procedures and standards for the entire spectrum of election processes is crucial to ensuring that elections are accurate and secure. They also make it possible for an informed electorate to determine accountability for the conduct of an election. Most voters are not familiar with the entire election-administration process; they are not engaged in the “behind the scenes” work and months of planning required to make an election run smoothly. Few voters see ballots being laid out, equipment being programmed; poll workers being trained in election laws, voters rights, and the intricacies of how the voting equipment works; or the election results being tabulated, reported, recounted, and certified.
Nevertheless, the public must be provided—either directly or indirectly via the media—with access to information on all aspects of the process of conducting elections. This openness and transparency encourages voter confidence in the system—and, by extension, in American democracy.

Since 2000, the process of conducting elections in America has been going through a period of transformation with the introduction of new and improved voting systems and implementation of various requirements of HAVA. Commitments to excellence by voting-system manufacturers, commitments to high standards and rigorous testing protocols by federal and state governments, commitments to open, accurate, and accessible elections by public officials, and commitments to voter participation by citizens can ensure that future elections will meet the highest standards of integrity.

  1. A copy of the Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA), signed into law by President George W. Bush on October 29, 2002, can be found at
  2. HAVA requires that the Election Assistance Commission provide payments to states to help them meet the federal requirements in Title III of HAVA. A payment chart showing how much money has been allocated can be found at
  3. TGDC provides recommendations on voluntary standards and guidelines related to voting equipment and technologies. The committee has 14 members selected from various standards boards and individuals with technical and scientific expertise related to voting systems and equipment. A list of committee members can be found at
  4. HAVA assigned NIST, which chairs TGDC, a key role in realizing nationwide improvements in voting systems. More information about the role of NIST can be found at
  5. HAVA Section 202 directs EAC to adopt voluntary voting-system guidelines that provide specifications and requirements against which voting systems can be tested to determine if they have all of the required functionality, accessibility, and security capabilities. In addition, the guidelines establish evaluation criteria for the national certification of voting systems. A copy of the VVSG 2005 can be found at
  6. To view comments, go to
  7. This requirement in the process of adopting the guidelines appears in HAVA, Section 222A(3). The text is available at
  8. The National Voluntary Laboratory Accreditation Program provides third-party accreditation for testing and calibration laboratories. More information can be found at
  9. A copy of the Voting System Testing and Certification Program Manual can be found at
  10. The core functions of the Elections System Center at Kennesaw State University include outreach, education, training, consultation, technical support, and ballot building. More information can be found at
  11. The Quick Start Guides can be found at
About the Author:Commissioner Gracia Hillman is a member of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. This paper is based on a presentation by the author on February 8, 2007, at the NAE Symposium on the Impact of Technology on Voting and Elections in the 21st Century.