FairVote's Comments on Federal Elections Commission's Proposed New Voting System Standards
The letter below was submitted by Rob Richie, Executive Director of FairVote, in response to the Federal Election Commission's proposal to change voting equipment standards.

July 23, 2001

Ms. Penelope Bonsall, director
Office of Election Administration
Federal Election Commission
999 E Street, NW
Washington, DC 20463
[email protected] (email)
(202) 694-1095 (phone)
(202) 219-8500 (fax)

Dear Ms. Penelope Bonsall,

The Center for Voting and Democracy is a non-partisan, non-profit educational organization that studies voting systems and their impacts on political participation, representation and governance.  Our President is John B. Anderson, former Member of Congress from Illinois and presidential candidate. We have reviewed the revised Voting System Standards (VSS) and wish to make the following public comments that we hope will be incorporated in the final VSS.

We believe it is critical, yet eminently practical, to require all new voting equipment, including paper-based systems,  to have the capacity to record and store an anonymous, electronic image of each voter’s ballot.  This belief is driven by two concerns.

The first is to preserve voting integrity by ensuring the security of paper-based ballots between the casting of the ballots by voters, any necessary recounting of these ballots and the final certification of results.  With paper-based ballots, the primary means of preserving the security of ballots is physical protection:  ballots are transported in sealed ballot boxes and are stored under lock and key.  If this physical security is breached and someone alters a ballot after it has been cast, it is virtually impossible to detect the alteration unless it is directly witnessed.  Ballots can also be altered inadvertently.  For example, when poll workers pick up ballots during recounts, unpunched chads sometimes fall out.  Unless this occurrence is witnessed, it is extremely difficult to detect the alteration.

The report released on July 16, 2001 by the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project underscores the importance of adding an electronic audit trail for paper ballots. One general recommendation (on page 42) is to “design equipment that logs all events (votes, maintenance, etc) that occur on the machine.” Other relevant comments in the report include: “Many systems have redundant recordings of the vote. Some jurisdictions require that the system have an ‘audit trail,’ a separate recording of each vote that can be used to audit the performance of the machine” (p. 43) and “Most equipment does, and all equipment should, provide redundant trusted recordings. Having several recordings of voters' intentions allows a full audit of any election.... For reasons of security, we should require redundant recordings of all new equipment.” (p. 44)

Capturing a ballot image that can be recorded and stored in a digital format is essential for this redundancy. Making this feature a standard in all new voting equipment would allow the rapid detection of alterations of ballot by comparing the electronic ballot image created on Election Day with the actual paper ballots.

We have assurances from the major voting equipment vendors that they can establish this capacity in their equipment, but at this time they do not always automatically include it as a feature. Note that in most cases, such a requirement would not add to the cost of voting equipment; in other cases, it would only slightly increase the cost of equipment, perhaps $100-200 per punch card reader or optical scanner. Given that modern electronic Direct Recording Equipment (DRE) already stores electronic ballot images, the requirement would not increase their cost. In sum, these costs are an inconsequential price to pay to better ensure the integrity of our elections.

Our second reason for seeking this capacity in new voting equipment is that it would provide jurisdictions with the capacity to handle all four ballot types currently used in public elections in the United States. These ballot types are discussed in an attached fact sheet. Note that the final report of the Constitution Project includes a recommendation that all voting equipment be able to handle a variety of ballot types, and a growing number of organizations, elected officials and administrators support this particular measure of ballot equipment flexibility.

We are attaching two additional items about voting equipment flexibility that we wish to enter into the public record. The first item is a letter signed by a variety of prominent organizations:  the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, Brennan Center for Justice, Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, the National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium, the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, and U.S. Public Interest Research Group.  The letter supports voting equipment standards in several important areas, including ballot type flexibility. The second item is the fact sheet that discusses ballot types and other aspects of equipment flexibility.

The rest of our comments refer to specific language in the VSS.

First, we note that the standards, (k) and require that electronic systems create multiple, redundant copies of ballot images.  Section specifies “Electronic systems shall incorporate multiple memories … These systems shall also maintain an electronic or physical image of each ballot, in an independent data path,” and “Electronic systems shall maintain a record of each ballot cast … The system shall be capable of reproducing these ballot images in human-readable form.”  These are critical requirements and should be applied equally to paper-based systems.

Second, section appears to contemplate the creation of electronic ballot images from paper-based ballots.  It reads, “This paper-based system requirement is limited to the conversion of the physical ballot into an analogous electronic image.”  We suggest adding to the following language to emphasize the importance of multiple, redundant records of ballot images:

“All mechanical or electronic devices that read paper-based ballots shall create multiple electronic records of the image of each ballot cast.  The system shall be capable of reproducing these ballot images in human-readable form.”

Third, section 2.3.2 (d) requires the “ability to select from a range of voting options to enable conformance with the laws in the jurisdiction in which the system will be used.”  New voting equipment should give all jurisdictions the flexibility to choose any ballot type currently used in public elections in the United States, so we suggest modifying 2.3.2 (d) to read (addition is  underlined):

“Ability to select from a range of voting options, including all four ballot types currently used in public elections, to enable conformance with the laws in the jurisdiction in which the system will be used.”

Fourth, section lays out paper based system standards.  This section should include a requirement that the ballot counting equipment produce multiple, redundant electronic copies of ballot images.

“All paper based systems shall include:

a.      a means of verifying that ballot punching or marking devices are properly prepared and ready for use;

b.      a voting booth or similar facility, in which the voter may punch or mark the ballot in privacy; and

c.       secure receptacles for holding voted ballots.

d.      a means for creating multiple, redundant electronic records of ballot images.

Fifth, section 6.3 describes the two areas of concern for equipment and data security: disruption of the voting process and corruption of voting data.  Electronic ballot images are the strongest method of both detecting and correcting any violation of the physical security of paper ballots during the period between the casting of the ballots and final certification of results.

We thank you for your consideration.

If you wish to discuss these suggestions, please contact me at 301-270-4616. We would welcome any opportunity to testify at any hearings you may hold on these standards.  Please notify us of any scheduled public hearings.


Robert Richie, Executive Director
The Center for Voting and Democracy  
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