Report: Lab certifying voting equipment failed to meet requirements

An independent laboratory accredited to certify voting systems has been accused of not meeting strict requirements for the testing program and will undergo monitoring by a team of federal observers.

SysTest Labs of Denver failed to document and validate its test methods to the satisfaction of the National Voluntary Laboratory Accreditation Program. In an Aug. 8 letter to the company, NVLAP officials wrote that, during an on-site assessment conducted by the organization, 'there were instances discovered where testing was performed by personnel who had not been qualified to perform the testing.'

The National Institute of Standards and Technology administers NVLAP.

The Election Assistance Commission, which is responsible for the voting-system certification program, also raised concerns about the lab allowing a manufacturer whose systems were being tested to play an inappropriate role in the certification process.

'Due to the severity of these nonconformances, it is necessary for NVLAP to take further steps to ensure that all accreditation requirements are being met,' the letter states. 'Such steps will take the form of on-site monitoring of actual testing by representatives from NVLAP, the EAC and the NIST Information Technology Laboratory.'

The action does not amount to removing SysTest's accreditation, but the lab will have to give NVLAP copies of test methods, validations of the methods for all systems being tested and documentation on the qualifications of all testers until further notice.

The security and reliability of voting systems, particularly electronic ones, have been a concern since the disputed presidential election of 2000, which resulted in the creation of EAC. Although the Federal Election Commission has produced voluntary standards for voting systems since 1990, the National Association of State Election Directors had overseen certification. The Help America Vote Act of 2002 moved responsibility for standards and certification to EAC, which produced its first set of guidelines in 2005.

The guidelines are voluntary, but a majority of states use them to certify voting systems. NIST approves the laboratories that perform certification for EAC under NVLAP.

SysTest was in the first group of labs that NVLAP accredited in 2007. Equipment manufacturers choose a lab to evaluate their products and pay for the service directly, but under program rules, the manufacturers are not allowed to play a role in the testing process.

In July, EAC sent a letter to SysTest about concerns that the lab 'is allowing and inviting manufacturers to play an inappropriate role in the development of test plans.' The letter cites an e-mail message in which the lab appeared to be drawing too heavily from Election Systems and Software in developing a testing program for an ES&S system. The message also appeared to set a goal of ensuring certification of the system.

SysTest said it develops its testing programs independent of manufacturers and that its goals are to ensure valid testing rather than certification of a given system. 'Our audit finds that there are no improprieties,' company officials wrote in their response.

But concerns about management, processes and staffing at the lab were great enough for NVLAP to require on-site monitoring to continue the accreditation.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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