FULTON, Wisconsin (CNN Business)When voters in Fulton, Wisconsin, arrived to cast their ballots in a local election Tuesday, the voting process looked a little different.
Rather than the usual paper ballots, voters made their selections on digital tablets, loaded them onto plastic cards outfitted with memory chips, and inserted them into a card reader that saved the votes to a computer and printed a paper copy of each ballot to be placed in a ballot box.
Another unfamiliar feature of the day: A handful of Microsoft (technology underlying the new system, called ElectionGuard.) executives stood by to explain and answer questions about the
The election in Fulton was the first official test of ElectionGuard, a voting software developed by Microsoft as part of its “Defending Democracy” project. ElectionGuard uses a relatively new form of encryption to secure votes and tally them in minutes. It’s designed to make it harder for hackers to break into the system, but also to make it immediately obvious if the system is tampered with.
Fulton Township, located about a half hour drive from Madison, has a population of 3,300. Fewer than 400 people drove through the snow to Fulton Town Hall, the town’s singular polling place, to cast their ballots.
“I came in expecting the same old voting process with the little pencils and the forms with the little dots but it wasn’t like that at all,” said Barbara Pifer, a Fulton voter. But Pifer said she’s glad for the pilot: “It was refreshing to see that they’re trying to do something new and maybe start a process that’s going to be a bit more foolproof and secure.”
Foreign meddling in the American voting system has been top of mind for election officials, cybersecurity experts and many voters since Russia was found to have interfered in the 2016 presidential election. And last week, the intelligence community’s top election security official told US lawmakers that Russia is believed to be taking steps to interfere in the 2020 election with the goal of helping President Donald Trump win.
The ElectionGuard pilot also came days after the debut of a different digital voting system — an app developed by Shadow Inc. and implemented by the Democratic National Convention for the Iowa caucuses — was a public disaster.
Microsoft planned to avoid such a debacle by trying out their solution in a much smaller election, and with a hand count of paper ballots as a backup.
The company doesn’t expect ElectionGuard to be used in the 2020 election. But after the technology proved successful in Fulton, Microsoft executives say they’re optimistic it will be widely adopted by the 2024 presidential election.
The company has made the software’s code free and publicly available.
“When we saw what happened in 2016, the efforts that were made by foreign adversaries to actually influence the voting process in the United States, we concluded we had a responsibility as a technology leader to see what Microsoft could contribute to improving the safety and security of our elections,” said Tom Burt, Microsoft’s corporate vice president for consumer security and trust.