In an important development in e-voting policy, NIST has issued a report recommending that the next-generation federal voting-machine standards be written to prevent (re-)certification of today’s paperless e-voting systems. (NIST is the National Institute of Standards and Technology, a government agency, previously called the National Bureau of Standards, that is a leading source of independent technology expertise in the U.S. government.) The report is a recommendation to another government body, the Technical Guidelines Development Committee (TGDC), which is drafting the 2007 federal voting-machine standards. The new report is notable for its direct tone and unequivocal recommendation against unverifiable paperless voting systems, and for being a recommendation of NIST itself and not just of the report’s individual authors.
[UPDATE (Dec. 2): NIST has now modified the document’s text, for example by removing the “NIST recommends…” language in some places and adding a preface saying it is only a discussion draft.]
The key concept in the report is software independence.
A voting system is software-independent if a previously undetected change or error in its software cannot cause an undetectable change or error in an election outcome. In other words, it can be positively determined whether the voting system’s (typically, electronic) CVRs [cast-vote records] are accurate as cast by the voter or in error.
This gets to the heart of the problem with paperless voting: we can’t be sure the software in the machines on election day will work as expected. It’s difficult to tell for sure which software is present, and even if we do know which software is there we cannot be sure it will behave correctly. Today’s paperless e-voting systems (known as DREs) are not software-independent.
NIST does not known how to write testable requirements to make DREs secure, and NIST’s recommendation to the STS [a subcommittee of the TGDC] is that the DRE in practical terms cannot be made secure. Consequently, NIST and the STS recommend that [the 2007 federal voting standard] should require voting systems to be [software independent].
In other words, NIST recommends that the 2007 standard should be written to exclude DREs.
Though the software-independence requirement and condemnation of DREs as unsecureable will rightly get most of the attention, the report makes three other good recommendations. First, attention should be paid to improving the usability and accessibility of voting systems that use paper. Second, the 2007 standard should include high-level discussion of new approaches to software independence, such as fancy cryptographic methods. Third, more research is needed to develop new kinds of voting technologies, with special attention paid to improving usability.
Years from now, when we look back on the recent DRE fad with what-were-we-thinking hindsight, we’ll see this NIST report as a turning point.