The federal government has finally taken notice of absurdly unverifiable electronic voting equipment, with new recommendations just released by the National Institute of Standards and Technology. The research group argues that a paper trail is necessary for election officials to be able to conduct a credible recount. But don’t get your hopes up: Even if Congress agrees with the findings, real oversight could be years away.
In a report hailed by critics of electronic voting, NIST said that voting systems should allow election officials to recount ballots independently from a voting machine’s software. The recommendations endorse “optical-scan” systems in which voters mark paper ballots that are read by a computer and electronic systems that print a paper summary of each ballot, which voters review and elections officials save for recounts.
Voters in Maryland cast ballots on electronic machines that produce no paper record of each vote; in the District and Loudoun County, voters can choose between using such machines and optical-scan systems. Other Northern Virginia jurisdictions, and many counties across the state, use electronic voting systems exclusively.
NIST’s recommendations are to be debated next week before the Technical Guidelines Development Committee, charged by Congress to develop standards for voting systems. To become effective, NIST’s recommendations must then be adopted by the Election Assistance Commission, which was created by Congress to promote changes in election systems after the 2000 debacle in Florida.
If the commission agrees with NIST, the practical impact may not be felt until 2009 or 2010, the soonest that new standards would be implemented. The standards that the Election Assistance Commission will adopt are voluntary, but most states require election officials to deploy voting systems that meet national or federal criteria.