By CHRISTOPHER DREW
January 4, 2007
A laboratory that has tested most of the nations electronic voting
systems has been temporarily barred from approving new machines after
federal officials found that it was not following its quality-control
procedures and could not document that it was conducting all the
The company, Ciber Inc. of Greenwood Village, Colo., has also come under
fire from analysts hired by New York State over its plans to test new
voting machines for the state. New York could eventually spend $200
million to replace its aging lever devices.
Experts on voting systems say the Ciber problems underscore longstanding
worries about lax inspections in the secretive world of voting-machine
testing. The action by the federal Election Assistance Commission seems
certain to fan growing concerns about the reliability and security of
The commission acted last summer, but the problem was not disclosed
then. Officials at the commission and Ciber confirmed the action in
Ciber, the largest tester of the nations voting machine software, says
it is fixing its problems and expects to gain certification soon.
Experts say the deficiencies of the laboratory suggest that crucial
features like the vote-counting software and security against hacking
may not have been thoroughly tested on many machines now in use.
Whats scary is that weve been using systems in elections that Ciber had
certified, and this calls into question those systems that they tested,
said Aviel D. Rubin, a computer science professor at Johns Hopkins.
Professor Rubin said that although some software bugs had shown up
quickly, in other instances you might have to use the systems for a
while before something happens.
Officials at the commission and other election experts said it was
essential for a laboratory to follow its quality-control procedures and
document all its testing processes to instill confidence in the results.
Commission officials said that they were evaluating the overall
diligence of the laboratory and that they did not try to determine
whether its weaknesses had contributed to problems with specific
Computer scientists have shown that some electronic machines now in use
are vulnerable to hacking. Some scientists caution that even a simple
software error could affect thousands of votes.
In various places, elections have been complicated by machines that did
not start, flipped votes from one candidate to another or had trouble
tallying the votes.
Until recently, the laboratories that test voting software and hardware
have operated without federal scrutiny. Even though Washington and the
states have spent billions to install the new technologies, the machine
manufacturers have always paid for the tests that assess how well they
work, and little has been disclosed about any flaws that were
As soon as federal officials began a new oversight program in July, they
detected the problems with Ciber. The commission held up its application
for interim accreditation, thus barring Ciber from approving new voting
systems in most states.
Ciber, a large information technology company, also has a $3 million
contract to help New York test proposed systems from six manufacturers.
Nystec, a consulting firm in Rome, N.Y., that the state hired, filed a
report in late September criticizing Ciber for creating a plan to test
the software security that did not specify any test methods or
procedures for the majority of the requirements. The report said the
plan did not detail how Ciber would look for bugs in the computer code
or check hacking defenses.
A spokeswoman for Ciber, Diane C. Stoner, said that the company believed
that it had addressed all the problems and that it expected to receive
its initial federal accreditation this month. Federal officials said
they were evaluating the changes the company had made.
Ms. Stoner said in a statement that although the Election Assistance
Commission had found deficiencies, they were not because Ciber provided
incomplete, inaccurate or flawed testing, but because we did not
document to the E.A.C.s liking all of the testing that we were
She added that the test plan cited in New York was just a draft and that
Ciber had been working with Nystec to ensure additional security
The co-chairman of the New York State Board of Elections, Douglas A.
Kellner, said Ciber had tightened its testing. But Mr. Kellner said
yesterday that Nystec and Ciber continued to haggle over the scope of
the security testing.
New York is one of the last states to upgrade its machines, and it also
has created some of the strictest standards for them. Mr. Kellner said
only two of the six bidders, Diebold Election Systems and Liberty
Election Systems, seemed close to meeting all the requirements.
Besides Ciber, two other companies, SysTest Labs of Denver and Wyle
Laboratories, in El Segundo, Calif., test electronic voting machines.
Ciber, which has been testing the machines since 1997, checks just
software. Wyle examines hardware, and SysTest can look at both.
The chairman of the Election Assistance Commission, Paul S. DeGregorio,
said SysTest and Wyle received interim accreditations last summer. Mr.
DeGregorio said two other laboratories had also applied to enter the
Congress required greater federal oversight when it passed the Help
America Vote Act of 2002. Since then, the government also put up more
than $3 billion to help states and localities buy electronic machines,
to avoid a repeat of the hanging punch-card chads that caused such
confusion in the 2000 presidential election.
The commission was never given a substantial budget, and it did not
finish creating the oversight program until last month. Until then, the
laboratories had been at the heart of the system to evaluate voting
machines, a system that seemed oddly cobbled together.
While the federal government created standards for the machines, most of
the states enacted laws to make them binding. The states also monitored
the testing, and much of that work was left to a handful of current and
former state election officials who volunteered their time.
As a result, voting rights advocates and other critics have long been
concerned about potential conflicts of interest, because the
manufacturers hire the laboratories and largely try to ensure
Michael I. Shamos, a computer scientist who examines voting machines for
Pennsylvania, said about half had significant defects that the
laboratories should have caught.
Besides certifying the laboratories, the Election Assistance Commission
will have three staff members and eight part-time technicians to approve
test plans for each system and check the results. The manufacturers will
be required to report mechanical breakdowns and botched tallies, and Mr.
DeGregorio said those reports would be on the agencys Web site.
Dr. Shamos said, This is not the sea change that was needed.
He said he was disappointed that the commission had hired some of the
same people involved in the states monitoring program and that it never
announced it had found problems with Ciber operations.
Dr. Rubin of Johns Hopkins said the laboratories should be required to
hire teams of hackers to ferret out software vulnerabilities.
And the laboratories will still be paid by the voting machine companies,
though a bill now in Congress could change that to government financing.
A recent appearance in Sarasota, Fla., by the SysTest Labs president,
Brian T. Phillips, also raised eyebrows. After a Congressional election
in the Sarasota area ended in a recount last month, the victorious
Republican candidate hired Mr. Phillips as a consultant to monitor the
states examination of whether there had been a malfunction in the voting
Several critics questioned whether Mr. Phillips should have taken such
work, either because of its partisan nature or because it represented
such a public defense of the industry.
Mr. Phillips said he did not see any conflict because his laboratory had
not tested the software used in Sarasota. And the project does not
appear to have violated the ethics rules of the election commission.
Ian Urbina contributed reporting.
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company
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