December 5, 2006 10:34 AM PST

Panel changes course, approves e-voting checks

One day after a federal advisory committee rejected a proposal designed to usher in more stringent requirements for electronic voting machines, the same panel has changed course.

On the final day of a public meeting at the National Institute of Standards and Technology outside Washington D.C., the Technical Guidelines Development Committee, which advises the U.S. government on electronic voting machine standards, voted unanimously to begin drafting regulations that would require the "next generation" of voting systems to be "software independent."

Voting machines are considered to be "dependent" on software if an undetected bug or modification in their code can lead to an undetectable change in the election's outcome. Paperless touch-screen voting machines, also known as direct-record electronic machines, typically fall into that category.

Both the original and revised proposals were offered by Massachusetts Institute of Technology computer science and electrical engineering professor Ron Rivest, who serves as chairman of a subcommittee focused on voting machine security and transparency.

A key difference between Tuesday's proposal and a proposal narrowly rejected by the committee at Monday's session is its emphasis on the generation of voting machines currently in use. They would not have to be decertified if they fail to meet the new requirements, the revised resolution said. The 14-member committee is made up of engineers, computer scientists and election administrators.

"The Technical Guidelines Development Committee (TGDC) has considered current threats to voting systems and, at this time, finds that security concerns do not warrant replacing deployed voting systems," the resolution said--provided that they already adhere to existing standards set by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, a federal agency charged with setting e-voting guidelines for states.

That provision is likely aimed at quelling concerns by elections officials who have balked at the idea of replacing millions of dollars worth of paperless electronic machines and are not convinced that a paper trail would significantly enhance security or voter confidence. Thirty-five states either already have some form of paper trail or have such a requirement in place.

The revised version still emphasizes the importance of requiring new machines to be "software independent" in order "to provide auditability and proactively address the increasing difficulty of protecting against all prospective threats."

Computer scientists speaking at the TGDC's meeting said there's no way to ensure that software code on voting machines is bug-proof. They have argued that the only way to ensure an accurate tally is to have an independent means of auditing election results, whether it be a paper trail or some yet-to-be developed paperless verification technique.

The newly adopted resolution also takes an extra step, calling for the committee to write "usability and accessibility requirements to ensure that all voters can verify the independent voting record."

The advisory committee has been meeting since Monday to consider action on a number of other issues related to electronic voting machines, including security and transparency, testing requirements, usability and privacy.

The software independence resolution and others approved by the committee are only incremental steps underpinning a broad set of guidelines that the group is expected to devise by July 2007. It's unclear when any new guidelines would take effect, but it's not likely to occur until at least spring 2008, after a lengthy period of public comments, hearings and federal agency approval.

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