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Standards for accreditation of labs that test voting machines inconsistent

The federal organizations responsible for accrediting laboratories that test voting machines aren't applying tough enough standards, according to a Government Accountability Office report released this week.

Comment on this article in The Forum.As of May 2008, four laboratories had passed muster with the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the Election Assistance Commission, created under the 2002 Help America Vote Act. But the report (GAO-08-770), released on Tuesday, called into question the validity of those assessments and noted that failure to strengthen the accreditation process could lead to inaccurate election results.

NIST, which measures laboratories' technical qualifications and then makes recommendations to EAC, was the subject of many of GAO's criticisms. Of particular concern, the watchdog agency said, was NIST's reliance on generic international standards to ensure that the people conducting the assessments were qualified. NIST should have followed requirements in the 2002 voting law, the report said.

"NIST has reported on the importance of ensuring that those … who perform accreditation assessments are sufficiently qualified and that the assessments themselves are based on explicitly defined criteria and are adequately documented," GAO stated. "Nevertheless, NIST has not fully reflected key aspects of these findings in its defined approach to accrediting voting system testing laboratories."

Until recently, NIST also failed to specify the capabilities labs must demonstrate to earn accreditation. A draft update to a program handbook EAC released in December 2007 and later approved by NIST largely fixed that problem. But questions about the validity of accreditations remain, the report said.

Furthermore, NIST either skipped or failed to document a number of self-imposed steps, according to the report. Applications and checklists used to document assessments often were inconsistent or incomplete, for example, and officials did not maintain thorough records of correspondence between assessors and the laboratories.

GAO recommended that NIST ensure assessors are qualified and trained properly, and that each laboratory review is well-documented. Similarly, GAO recommended that the EAC executive director make sure accreditation steps are documented thoroughly, requirements for the qualifications of accreditation reviewers are defined and appropriate records are maintained. The watchdog agency also suggested that EAC establish standards for determining laboratory financial stability.

"Opportunities exist for NIST and EAC to further define and implement their respective programs in ways that promote greater consistency, repeatability, and transparency -- and thus improve the results achieved," GAO reported.

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