- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 22, 2004

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — 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 touch-screen machines can be trusted, the testing companies won’t say publicly whether 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 specialist, 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,” Mr. Shamos added.

Although as many as 50 million Americans are expected to vote on touch-screen machines 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 Inc. and Wyle Laboratories Inc. in Huntsville and SysTest Labs in Denver — also are inadequately equipped, some critics contend.

Federal regulations specify that every voting system used must be validated by a tester. Yet it has taken more than a year to gain approval for some election software and hardware, leading some states to either do their own testing or order uncertified equipment.

That wouldn’t be such an issue if not for troubles with touch screens, which were introduced broadly in a bid to modernize voting technology after the 2000 presidential election ballot-counting fiasco in Florida.

Failures involving touch screens during voting this year in Georgia, Maryland and California and other states have prompted questions about the machines’ susceptibility to tampering and software bugs.

Also in question is their viability, given the lack of paper records, if recounts are needed in what is shaping up to be a tightly contested presidential race. Paper records of each vote were considered a vital component of the electronic machines used in the recent referendum in Venezuela on whether to recall President Hugo Chavez.

Critics of reliance on touch-screen machines want not just paper records — only Nevada among the states expects to have them installed in its touch screens come November — but also public scrutiny of the software they use. The machine makers have resisted.

“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, Colorado Democrat, told members of a House subcommittee in June at the same hearing at which Mr. Shamos testified.

“If there are any problems, we will spend years rebuilding the public’s confidence in our voting systems,” Mr. 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 employees test voting-machine software. Shawn Southworth, a voting equipment tester at the laboratory, said that he wouldn’t discuss the company’s work publicly. He referred questions to a spokeswoman at Ciber headquarters in Greenwood Village, Colo., who never returned telephone messages.

Also in Huntsville is the division of Wyle Laboratories that tests U.S. elections hardware, including touch screens made by market leaders Diebold Inc., Sequoia Voting Systems Inc. and Election Systems & Software Inc. Wyle spokesman Dan Reeder refused to provide details on how the El Segundo, Calif., company, which has been vetting hardware for the space industry since 1949 in Huntsville, tests the voting equipment.

“Our work on election machines is off-limits,” Mr. Reeder said. “We just don’t discuss it.” He did allow, though, that the testing includes “environmental simulation … shake, rattle and roll.”

Carolyn Goggins, a spokeswoman for SysTest Labs, the only other federally approved election software and hardware tester, refused to discuss the company’s work.

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