There are many aspects of modern election administration in the United States that the average voter may not see on Election Day but that have far-reaching impacts on the security and integrity of the voting process. Federal and state certification of voting systems is one area in particular where those outside of the day-to-day administration or oversight of elections (and even some in those roles) might not have a clear understanding of the rigorous and extensive testing protocols that each system must go through before it is set up in a polling place to count ballots. Pulling back the curtain on certification can help improve public confidence by offering insights into how the technology a voter is seeing on Election Day is tested to ensure each vote is counted as intended. 

Why are Voting Systems Certified?  

Federal voting system certification, like many aspects of modern elections in the United States, is a product of the highly scrutinized 2000 Presidential Election. In the aftermath of that election, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) in 2002, as an effort to standardize the nation’s voting rules and regulations to preserve the safety, stability, accessibility, and accuracy of elections.  

HAVA’s passage initiated the creation of a federal election commission, known as the Election Assistance Commission (EAC), and established a national program for the certification of voting and tabulation equipment among other key provisions. Today, to receive federal certification, voting systems must be tested in an EAC-accredited Voting System Test Laboratory (VSTL) following the criteria laid out by the Voluntary Voting System Guidelines (VVSG).  

What are the Voluntary Voting System Guidelines? 

The Voluntary Voting System Guidelines (VVSG) are “a set of specifications and requirements against which voting systems are tested to determine if they meet required standards.1 The initial version of these guidelines was the VVSG 1.0 standards established in 2005. In February of 2021, the EAC adopted more rigorous testing requirements that mandated systems submitted for testing must meet VVSG 2.0 requirements after November 15, 2023. Although the name includes the term “voluntary,” the vast majority of currently utilized voting systems in the United States have been designed to meet or exceed VVSG 1.0 standards. Voting systems must always meet the standards set forth by VVSG to receive EAC certification, and while some states do not require certification by the EAC before entering into certification at the state level, states do require systems to meet VVSG and/or HAVA statutes to comply with federal regulations.    

Though the EAC is requiring future voting systems to meet VVSG 2.0 standards, systems previously certified under VVSG 1.0 or 1.1 guidelines will continue to be fully functional and compliant for use in elections and will not be decertified by the EAC. Though jurisdictions may choose to migrate to VVSG 2.0 voting systems as they become available, the EAC will not require counties or states to purchase new systems. More information about VVSG 2.0 can be found in this FAQ published on the Clear Ballot website.  

What is the Difference Between Federal and State Certification? 

Like many facets of governing, the federal government gives each state the authority to make important decisions surrounding election administration and regulations, as long as key federal laws, like HAVA and the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA) are upheld. Based on individual state laws and regulatory guidance, states often take different approaches to evaluating, testing, and certifying voting systems.  

All states administer some sort of approval and/or certification process, regardless of whether they also require EAC certification. Thirty-eight states and the District of Columbia use some aspect of the federal testing and certification program in addition to their own state-specific testing and certification of systems. Thirteen states have no federal testing or certification requirements (statutes and/or regulations make no mention of any federal agency, certification program, laboratory, or standard) but have state-specific processes that incorporate VVSG and/or HAVA statutes to test and approve equipment.2

How are Systems Certified?  

Voting systems must complete a rigorous testing process in a federally accredited independent laboratory, called a Voting System Test Laboratory (VSTL), to meet federal certification requirements. A VSTL must be accredited in order to test voting technology. Accreditation verifies that laboratories have appropriate quality management systems and can properly perform specific test methods (e.g., ANSI, ASTM, and ISO test methods) and calibration parameters according to their scopes of accreditation.3 To become accredited, a laboratory must go through a lengthy process, which includes an application, a management system review process, a document and record review process, an onsite assessment, and various proficiency tests. There are currently just two accredited VSTLs: SLI Compliance in Colorado and Pro V&V in Alabama. 

During the testing process, the VSTL determines if the voting technology meets the necessary functionality, accessibility, and security capabilities laid out by VVSG standards.4 States without federal certification requirements have state-specific guidelines for testing equipment that meet or exceed VVSG standards. Tests performed in a VSTL ensure voting systems follow the requirements of VVSG. These include but are not limited to, ensuring voting systems and voting processes are designed to provide transparency, making sure ballots and vote selections are presented in a perceivable, operable, and understandable way and can be marked, verified, and cast by all voters, and confirming that voting systems protect data from unauthorized access, modification, or deletion.

How Long is the Certification Process?  

As with other aspects of election administration, there is no clear-cut answer on how long it will take a voting system to receive certification once it has been submitted for testing. VSTLs and state testing facilities run a wide variety of tests and procedures to ensure voting systems are safe, accessible, and functional, and these tests take time. A system’s certification timeframe can also be impacted by the number of systems currently under test, as the two VSTLs are only able to accommodate a certain number of certification campaigns at one time and states may choose to delay or speed up a system’s certification depending on upcoming elections, the number of systems under test, or other factors. Additionally, vendors seeking EAC certification can only have one ongoing federal certification campaign under test concurrently. For these reasons, certification is typically a months-long process, and the exact timeline can vary widely depending on the amount of system enhancements and modifications to be tested, as well as the timing and agency handling the certification. 

Testing for Accuracy and Security 

Whether a voting system is certified at the state, federal level, or both, voters and election officials should feel confident that the rigorous and extensive testing processes followed by both the federal government and state certifying entities ensure that today’s voting technology is held to the highest standards of accuracy, accessibility, and security. These guidelines are constantly evolving and will continue to evolve to address the changing technological and cybersecurity landscape, as they have with VVSG 2.0. For voters with questions about their state’s certification requirements and testing procedures, reaching out to their jurisdiction’s local election official or state elections authority, such as a Secretary of State’s office or state election board, is the best way to receive up-to-date, accurate information specific to their state.   

1 “Voluntary Voting System Guidelines | U.S. Election Assistance Commission.” n.d.

2  “Voting System Testing & Certification.” U.S. Election Assistance Commission. n.d.

3  “Accreditation vs. Certification.” NIST. June 11, 2010. 

4  “What Is a VSTL?” SLI Compliance. August 22, 2018.

5  “Voluntary Voting System Guidelines VVSG 2.0 Requirements for the Voluntary Voting System Guidelines 2.0 Prepared for the Election Assistance Commission at the Direction of the Technical Guidelines Development Committee 2 Requirements for VVSG 2.0.” U.S. Election Assistance Commission. 2021. 

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