June 16, 2024

CA SoS Bowen sends proposals to EAC

California Secretary of State Debra Bowen has sent a letter to Chair Gineen Beach of the US Election Assistance Commission (EAC) outlining three proposals that she thinks will markedly improve the integrity of voting systems in the country.

I’ve put a copy of Bowen’s letter here (87kB PDF).

Bowen’s three proposals are:

  • Vulnerability Reporting — The EAC should require that vendors disclose vulnerabilities, flaws, problems, etc. to the EAC as the system certification authority and to all the state election directors that use the affected equipment.
  • Uniform Incident Reporting — The EAC should create and adopt procedures that jurisdictions can follow to collect and report data about incidents they experience with their voting systems.
  • Voting System Performance Measurement — As part of the Election Day Survey, the EAC should systematically collect data from election officials about how voting systems perform during general elections.

In my opinion, each of these would be a welcome move for the EAC.

These proposals would put into place a number of essential missing elements of administering computerized elections equipment. First, for the users of these systems, election officials, it can be extremely frustrating and debilitating if they suspect that some voting system flaw is responsible for problems they’re experiencing. Often, when errors arise, contingency planning requires detailed knowledge about specific details of a voting system flaw. Without knowing as much as possible about the problem they’re facing, election officials can exacerbate the problem. At best, not knowing about a potential flaw can do what Bowen describes: doom the election official, and others with the same equipment, to repeatedly encounter the flaw in subsequent elections. Of course, vendors are the most likely to have useful information on a given flaw, and they should be required to report this information to both the EAC and election officials.

Often the most information we have about voting system incidents come from reports from local journalists. These reporters don’t tend to cover high technology too often; their reports are often incomplete and in many cases simply and obviously incorrect. Having a standardized set of elements that an election official can collect and report about voting system incidents will help to ensure that the data comes directly from those experiencing a given problem. The EAC should design such procedures and then a system for collecting and reporting these issues to other election officials and the public.

Finally, many of us were disappointed to learn that the 2008 Election Day survey would not include questions about voting system performance. Election Day is a unique and hard-to-replicate event where very little systematic data is collected about voting machine performance. The OurVoteLive and MyVote1 efforts go a long way towards actionable, qualitative data that can help to increase enfranchisement. However, self-reported data from the operators of the machinery of our democracy would be a gold mine in terms of identifying and examining trends in how this machinery performs, both good and bad.

I know a number of people, including Susannah Goodman at Common Cause as well as John Gideon and Ellen Theisen of VotersUnite!, who have been championing one or another of these proposals in their advocacy. The fact that Debra Bowen has penned this letter is a testament to the reason behind their efforts.


  1. Improving feedback is almost always a good thing, but … this change by nature is a minor increment, not an overhaul. If you have a badly-designed car, putting on better tires is not going to solve the design problem. The problem with existing “election systems” is fundamental to the (badly done) designs. The best time to worry about peripheral issues is after you solve the core issues.

    My concern is the possible loss of focus on the core problems.

    Once the core problems are resolved, this action would be entirely appropriate. Just now … might be premature.

    • one thing I’ve learned is that big change comes very hard in voting systems. The constituencies involved are so varied and have such varied goals that it’s hard to get anything other than incremental changes done. A good example is the lack of a federal requirement that machines produce an auditable record (for recounts, of course). That legislation has seen various forms over 3-4 years and each time it has been shot down by one or another interest group (be it the disability lobby, the local election officials, etc.). So, I wouldn’t worry about a loss of focus on fundamental change because I don’t think anyone realistically thinks that is possible… step functions and elections just don’t seem to work.

      • Valerie Lane says

        Dear Mr. Hall..
        I admire your dedication to election protection. I offer the following with all due respect…I am deeply troubled by your comment….I hope you will ……..

        In response to………..so you want a revolution???!!! …how about if we all just support the fundamentals necessary to provide meaningful access by federal observers to assure that the votes have been cast and counted as the voters intended which is, by the way , a requirement of The Voting Rights Act??? Is that a GOAL we can all agree on????? If not, please explain…..why not?

        On August 8th 2007, Pam Fessler, reporting for NPR in article titled “Voting Officials Wary About Electronic Ballot”, quotes Bowen as stating….”When NASA discoverer a flaw or a potential safety concern in the space shuttle, it doesn’t continue launching missions. It scrubs the mission and fixes the problem.”……….When Bowen’s Top-To-Bottom-Review revealed the critical systemic security vulnerabilities in all of CA software dependent voting systems her immediate response was to DECERTIFY all the systems. ……..Unfortunately, Bowen chose not to hold the Vendors accountable for these design failures. Bowen’s FIX instead created an unintended but obvious conflict of interest for election officials when she charged them to “secure” these faulty systems. For many reasons the voting systems quite simply are not suitable for the purpose for which they are intended.!

        Across the country when responsible citizens seek to assert their rights to “meaningful access” to observe all election procedures, election officials often become antagonistic and defensive. Protests and pleas for legal assistance from citizens who report that their rights to access critical election data and information have been violated and denied, fall on deaf ears. Have you ever filed a Public Records request for any voting system’s electronic audit log, e-file or the database? If so was it delivered in a timely manner. What did it cost you ? What was redacted? Was it complete? Was it accurate? If you haven’t, I suggest you try it. Good luck!

        All software dependent voting systems, both touch/screen and op/scan, fail to provide for the required visible access to observe casting and counting ballots which the Voting Rights Act demands however, the EAC, our elected officials and other interested parties choose to ignore this inconvenient truth.

        I certainly applaud Bowen’s courage to stand up to the Vendor’s. However, her first proposal that “the voting system vendor report any and all flaws and problems with the system to the EAC and to the elections officials in the states where the system is used when such flaws are discovered” is extremely problematic. Let’s just forget about the ignored voluntary “standards”…..and the non-compliant ITA’s….But let’s remember instead that this is not a dress rehearsal and we do not vote in a vacuum. Yes, Bowen made a grand attempt to provide a comprehensive security back up plan with her extensive Conditional Re-Approval of Voting system requirements in 2007.

        Unfortunately, these mitigating security measures failed to reveal that a voting system design flaw in the Diebold/Premier system used in Humboldt County during the Nov. 2008 election, permitted tallied ballots to be deleted from the system and not included in the final official tally. This is one time the problem could not simply be called a “human error”, though Diebold/Premier certainly tried to blame it on the officials. How many system malfunctions have gone unnoticed or unreported?

        Those who conducted the Top-To-Bottom-Review were handicapped by time and financial constraints. They clearly warned Bowen that they could not provide a thorough security analysis of the systems and there was a great potential for more undiscovered security flaws. Why would election officials suddenly voluntarily reveal a voting system problem when their stated goal is to create voter confidence??? Who will provide independent oversight to affirm that the Vendors and election officials comply with this “national policy”….What will the penalty be for failure to comply?

        Bowen is a shining star compared to most Secretaries of State. However, what Bowen does not reveal in her letter to the EAC is that the CA state required audit which is intended to provide “assurance” of an accurate vote tally FAILED to meet it’s goal.The Humboldt county citizens discovered the tally error, after the election was certified. This example relates to a flaw which the Vendor knew about. What about the as yet undiscovered flaws or system malfunctions due to machine defects or by intentional design? The only reason Bowen is able to offer the Humboldt example of a voting system inaccurate tally is due to the persistence and diligence of the dedicated citizens who were provided with an extraordinary opportunity for access to participate in unique election procedures.

        Who is to be held accountable when electronic software dependent voting systems fail to provide an accurate vote tally? How will we know when the voting system fails to provide accurate vote tallies. The CA audit failed,. On what basis do voter’s decide to PAY out of their pocket for a recount? Why should the burden fall on the voter to pay to prove the tally wrong when in fact the election officials fail to prove it is correct. The EAC has financed and promoted a four billion dollar blockade to citizen access to meaningful election observation. Bowen’s plea to the EAC for Vendor accountability is certainly laudable but her request for a “national policy” is impractical and will be like adding a bandage to a cancer.
        Having spent the last four years researching the pros and cons of electronic voting systems I will concede that ” the constituencies involved are varied and have varied goals”……My research reveals that the bottom line now takes priority over civil rights and thus we have a critical problem. I am not an armchair critic. I invite anyone reading this to contact me and engage in further discussion.

        In closing, I must question your reference to “a good example is the lack of a federal requirement that machines produce an auditable record (for recounts, of course)”. Surely you are aware of Bowen’s restriction on the use of touchscreen (t/s) machines, even though they have A VVPAT , or paper trail. Surely you know that the memory cartridges from the (t/s) DRE’s when uploaded can infect the central tabulation system. Surely you know the internal memory cartridge can record a vote different from the VVPAT. Perhaps you don’t know that Bowen’s Re-Approval Conditions require a 100%manual tally of the votes on the Sequoia VVPAT’s as a check against the machine tally and that the Vendor must pay for the manual tally. Perhaps you don’t know one CA election official deliberately failed to complete the manual VVPAT tally prior to the certification of the Nov 2008 election. Why you would use this as a good example?

        When Bowen’s own CA election officials clearly protests and fails to support her obvious attempt to provide for some minimal “accountability……….why should we believe that the if the EAC were to adopt the national policy she requests….that ALL national election officials would embrace them?

        We have over 3,000 individual election voting jurisdictions. The accuracy of any system obviously depends to a great degree on the integrity of those who are in charge of the system. Voters confidence in the accuracy of any voting system depends on how successfully the citizens can personally and independently check and balance the entire election process.

        While I am presently in CA I have fond memories of walking the halls of Princeton. I hope that by sharing my thoughts and concerns we can seek mutually beneficial solutions.

        • There’s too much there to respond to… I’m not a hand-counting radical, I instead demand consistent progress.