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Two NASED approved voting machine test labs fail to gain a NIST recommendation to EAC

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Two of the three electronic voting machine test labs certified by the National Association of State Election Directors, Ciber and Wyle, have failed to gain a favorable recommendation from the National Institute of Standards and Technology for accreditation by the Election Assistance Commission.

When the EAC took over accreditation of the test laboratories from NASED last year under terms of the Help America Vote Act, the EAC did not grant interim accreditation to the nation's largest voting machine test lab, Ciber, because of poor quality assurance and failure to document testing. Ciber certified electronic voting machines used by 68.5% of the registered voters in 2006.

Failure of the EAC to alert election officials around the nation that the Ciber lab had not been accredited has been sharply criticized and Senator Diane Feinstein has asked the beleaguered commission to explain why Ciber was not accredited and why there was not timely notice of the action to election officials.

In an apparent bid to shore up confidence in the banned test lab, Ciber has announced a merger with Wyle, another NASED approved lab, creating a "best of breed" inspection team. So far, the ploy has failed and may have cost Wyle its lucrative contracts as well.

NIST inspectors have recommended to the EAC that SysTest Labs and iBeta Quality Assurance get the testing business leaving the new Ciber-Wyle team looking for work. Both Ciber and Wyle have many government contracts with other agencies but it is unknown at this time if the NIST recommendations will have any impact on the other contracts.

One Ciber contract, with the Department of Defense, needs review in light of the EAC decision to deny interim accreditation. Ciber did the security testing of the computer system used by the Federal Voting Assistance Program, which serves military voters. As many as six million uniformed and overseas voters depend on the FVAP to help them with registration and balloting. Now the NIST report adds a new level of federal lack of confidence in Ciber's work.

SysTest, the only remaining NASED approved test lab still on track for EAC accreditation, has found itself in the center of controversy resulting in a recent directive from the EAC about partisan political activity. Brian Phillips, president of SysTest, took on a consultation role with one of the law firms involved in ongoing litigation over the infamous 18,000 "undervotes" in Sarasota's 2006 election. Phillips told the Denver Post it was no big deal and that he only observed a test and conferred with members of a law firm.

The certification of the iVotronic paperless voting machines in Sarasota that Phillips went to confer about has been a subject of concern in Florida. The Sunshine State does not use federal certification of its voting machines. Ciber was the prime federal testing lab for iVotronic machines yet Florida claims to have had Wyle conduct the tests instead. Now, with the announced Ciber-Wyle merger the actual independence of the two firms, both conducting their tests in Huntsville, Alabama, calls into question Ciber's real role in the certification of Sarasota's machines. Florida election officials have admitted to the Sarasota Herald Tribune that Ciber did test the county's election management tabulators and the Florida Division of Elections has used Ciber reports to prepare its technical advisories to local election officials.

Information on actual testing of electronic voting machines is secret. It is nearly impossible for the public to know who tested what when. The two excuses made for the secrecy are a need to maintain security and the protection of proprietary software. Meanwhile, the 18,000 "undervotes" in Sarasota go unexplained.

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Michael Richardson is a freelance writer based in Boston. Richardson writes about politics, law, nutrition, ethics, and music. Richardson is also a political consultant.

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