A New Approach to Voting Technology and the Future of U.S. Elections

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One vital, but underappreciated aspect of the nation’s elections is the role that voting technology testing and certification plays in structuring the American voting system. For decades, most states have required voting technology vendors to subject their products for testing to a set of “voluntary” federal standards before allowing those products to be purchased in their states.

As part of the Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA), the federal government now manages the standards-setting and testing system as part of a partnership between the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

The Humphrey School’s Doug Chapin observes that this system has generally worked well to protect state and local technology buyers from poorly-built or malfunctioning equipment, but over time it has also shrunk the pool of available technology as companies struggle to balance the cost – in both time and money – of having their products tested and certified for sale. As a result, state and local election offices have fewer choices of options for new equipment at a time when their existing systems are increasingly becoming obsolete.

But, as Chapin reports, EAC and NIST are working to make some key changes to testing and certification that could result in more streamlined reviews and greater choice in the market. In particular, the agencies are pursuing a functional approach that will focus less on what a system is and more on what it does. That approach could allow companies to focus on standalone pieces, as opposed to full systems, that would give buyers more choices – just like “plug and play” technology has revolutionized the personal computer market.

Understanding these changes – and the testing and certification system affected by them – will be crucial for current and future election officials nationwide. Addressing – and solving – the nation’s voting technology challenges requires professionals who can identify technical issues while also navigating policy hurdles in acquiring new voting machines. The Certificate in Election Administration program at the University of Minnesota is a first-of-its-kind and convenient online program to expand your tool set and further your career.

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