At its first meeting on Tuesday, the new quorum of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC) took an important, much-awaited step toward making the work of election officials easier and improving the voter experience around the country. For four years, the lack of a quorum of Commissioners blocked the accreditation of new voting system test laboratories, which meant only two facilities in the country were able to review the quality and accessibility of voting systems. Yesterday’s accreditation of a third test laboratory promises to help alleviate the looming risk of major voting machine problems that have worried many smart observers.
Federally accredited labs commonly test products we use everyday, from toasters to children’s toys, to ensure they are safe. Similarly, to protect the legitimacy of our elections, the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) requires the EAC to put voting machines through rigorous testing and certification. The law puts the EAC in charge of creating voting systems standards and overseeing the certification process to ensure machines (and any upgrades or patches) are reliable, accessible, and secure. As the EAC relies on neutral test facilities to review the systems, how the Commission accredits test labs is very important. For example, labs must be entirely independent from the vendors developing the machines so that there is no gamesmanship or undue influence on the rating of a particular system.
One result of the lack of a quorum of EAC commissioners had been that no new labs have been accredited. Until yesterday, only SLI Global Solutions and NTS Huntsville were certified by the EAC. No matter how many machines and modifications were waiting in line to be tested, only those two labs could test the systems. The resulting waiting periods have created a few significant problems.First, the wait time discourages vendors from introducing new and innovative voting machines to market, and second, states that can only purchase only federally-certified systems may be forced into buying out-of-date systems or into continuing to use old-generation existing machines that received certification a while ago.
More than three years ago, EAC staff invited Pro V & V, a team of specialized voting technology experts. to apply to become a federal test lab — and there Pro V & V figuratively sat, waiting. The head of Pro V & V, Jack Cobb of Huntsville Alabama, drew attention to his company’s predicament, indicating he had potential employees he wanted to hire and that his company could provide extra capacity to put machines through testing. He repeatedly asked the Senate to move on appointing EAC Commissioners, but it wasn’t until last December when the Senate acted that Mr. Cobb could see the end to the long wait in sight.
Shortly after the Senate’s confirmation of the three new Commissioners, the EAC held their first meeting in February 2015 and unanimously voted to accredit Pro V & V as a test lab. This means that more voting machines – some important existing modifications and next generation innovations – can now be tested, reducing the amount of time vendors and election officials wait in line for voting machine certification. While there are other problems with the testing and certification, this is a decisive first step, demonstrating that the EAC wants to move quickly to support election officials, vendors, and voters. After a long break in this type of EAC activity, their swiftness should be applauded.