A federal panel rejected a recommendation Monday that local elections officials use only voting machines that give independently verifiable results, which do not include the touch screen systems now widely used in Florida and other states.
The technological guidelines committee of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission voted 6-6 against endorsing the new standards after members voiced concerns about the burden on local officials, as well as questions about the near-term feasibility of such systems.
The recommendation needed eight votes to pass. Last week, a report by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which sets government standards on everything from fire codes to machine calibrations and advises the committee, issued a draft report saying most touch screen machines now in use cannot be independently audited and cannot be made secure.
"The philosophy, I'm in agreement with. But you can't get from here to there that fast,'' said committee member Britt Williams, an expert in elections systems from Atlanta who voted against the recommendation. "Think what you'd be doing to those poor elections officials."
Advocates for the proposed standard point to the Sarasota-area congressional race as proof that new rules are needed. Some 18,000 people using touch screen machines in Sarasota County somehow failed to register a vote in the race between Democrat Christine Jennings and Republican Vern Buchanan. Buchanan won by fewer than 400 votes.
State officials are testing the machines to ensure they performed properly. But with no ballots to inspect, it's virtually impossible to know whether the machines were accurate on Election Day. Jennings is contesting the election.
"To help with the voter confidence, we need to have that independent verification,'' said Patrick Gannon, president and chief executive of the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards and an expert in electronic business.
The technical committee is made up of 14 experts in computer science, elections and standards. It issues recommendations to the full Election Assistance Commission.
The commission's guidelines are voluntary, but most states follow them. Monday's meeting of the technical committee was held at NIST headquarters outside Washington.
NIST's draft report said most electronic voting systems are unreliable because their accuracy depends on the machines' software. The votes they tally also generally cannot be independently verified.
Some machines produce paper receipts so voters can ensure their votes were recorded as intended, but printer issues can cause more problems than they fix, some experts say.
The technical committee did vote to create a system for helping foster the development of new technology.
Wes Allison can be reached at email@example.com or (202) 463-0577.