Monday, August 23, 2004

Secretive testing firms certify nation's vote count machines

By Bill Poovey, with Erica Werner, Rachel KonRad and Jay Reeves, Associated Press, August 22, 2004


The three companies that certify the nation's voting technologies operate in secrecy, and refuse to discuss flaws in the ATM-like machines to be used by nearly one in three voters in November.

Despite concerns over whether the so-called touchscreen machines can be trusted, the testing companies won't say publicly if they have encountered shoddy workmanship.

They say they are committed to secrecy in their contracts with the voting machines' makers - even though tax money ultimately buys or leases the machines.

"I find it grotesque that an organization charged with such a heavy responsibility feels no obligation to explain to anyone what it is doing," Michael Shamos, a Carnegie Mellon computer scientist and electronic voting expert, told lawmakers in Washington, D.C.

The system for "testing and certifying voting equipment in this country is not only broken, but is virtually nonexistent," Shamos added.

Although up to 50 million Americans are expected to vote on touchscreen machines on Nov. 2, federal regulators have virtually no oversight over testing of the technology. The certification process, in part because the voting machine companies pay for it, is described as obsolete by those charged with overseeing it.

The testing firms - CIBER and Wyle Laboratories in Huntsville and SysTest Labs in Denver - are also inadequately equipped, some critics contend.


"Four years after the last presidential election, very little has been done to assure the public of the accuracy and integrity of our voting systems," Rep. Mark Udall, D-Colo., told members of a House subcommittee in June at the same hearing at which Shamos testified.

"If there are any problems, we will spend years rebuilding the public's confidence in our voting systems," Udall said. "We need to squarely face the fact that there have been serious problems with voting equipment deployed across the country in the past two years."

In Huntsville, the window blinds were closed when a reporter visited the office suite where CIBER Inc. employees test voting machine software. A woman who unlocked the door said no one inside could answer questions about testing.

Shawn Southworth, a voting equipment tester at the laboratory, said in a telephone interview that he wouldn't publicly discuss the company's work. He referred questions to a spokeswoman at CIBER headquarters in Greenwood Village, Colo., who never returned telephone messages.


More than a decade ago, the Federal Election Commission authorized the National Association of State Election Directors to choose the independent testers.

On its Web site, the association says the three testing outfits "have neither the staff nor the time to explain the process to the public, the news media or jurisdictions." It directs inquiries a Houston-based nonprofit organization, the Election Center, that assists election officials. The center's executive director, Doug Lewis, did not return telephone messages seeking comment.

The election directors' voting systems board chairman, former New York State elections director Thomas Wilkey, said the testers' secrecy stems from the FEC's refusal to take the lead in choosing them and the government's unwillingness to pay for it.

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