- Microsoft says it has a solution to concerns over the security of elections: its new ElectionGuard voting booth technology.
- ElectionGuard uses encryption to protect votes, and lets voters remotely confirm that their votes were counted.
- The technology was piloted for the first time Tuesday in a local election in Wisconsin — there weren’t any glitches, but some voters are wary.
Microsoft wants to restore voters’ trust in elections — and it says its own technology is the solution.
ElectionGuard, Microsoft’s new voting booth software, received its first real-life test Tuesday in Fulton, Wisconsin, where Microsoft partnered with the Wisconsin Elections Commission and local clerks to pilot the voting booths.
The software aims to assuage concerns over hacking, misinformation, and faulty vote-tallying, according to Microsoft CVP for customer security and trust Tom Burt. It’s connected to a printer that produces a filled-out paper ballot once users are done voting, creating a physical record of votes. ElectionGuard also lets voters remotely confirm that their vote was tallied the night of an election.
“When we saw the Russians attacking democracy and trying to influence elections around the world, not just in the US, we concluded this was a step we needed to take,” Burt said at Microsoft’s Redmond, WA headquarters last week.
Microsoft is playing up its security credentials as elections organizations across the US are increasingly willing to experiment with high-tech and experimental voting software. The Iowa Democratic Primary was infamously derailed last month due in part to problems with the app built for reporting results — according to Microsoft, ElectionGuard won’t face the same issues.
“Let me just say, don’t test in production,” Microsoft CVP of cybersecurity solutions Ann Johnson said at Microsoft’s headquarters last week, referencing reports that the Iowa app was barely tested prior to the caucus. “That wasn’t a cybersecurity issue. That was a dev issue.”
How it works
ElectionGuard works like this: Voters mark their choices on an electronic form, which prints a paper record of their ballot once submitted. The votes are encrypted in a way that protects voters’ identity while allowing their choices to be tallied.
According to Burt, the encryption method means that if anyone did hack the voting booths and alter vote tallies, the interference would be made obvious — and the printed paper ballots serve as a backup for recounts.
“This is not a system that cannot be hacked by an adversary, it’s a system that is pointless for an adversary to hack,” Burt said.
The software can be installed on third-party voting machines, but Microsoft has also built prototypes comprising a Surface tablet and components from an Xbox controller. After filling out their ballot, voters get to keep a second printout with a QR code that lets them verify that their vote was included in the final tally.
Winning over voters’ trust
ElectionGuard underwent its first real-life test Tuesday in Fulton, Wis, where nearly 400 people cast ballots in the 3,200-person town’s local election. While there weren’t any glitches with the voting booths or the tallying process, according to local authorities, not every voter was amenable to the new technology.
“There were a handful of people who didn’t like it, people who just don’t think technology belongs in voting,” Fulton clerk Connie Zimmerman told Business Insider. “But I heard a lot more positive comments than I did negative.”
Lisa Tollefsen, the clerk overseeing all precincts in Wisconsin’s Rock County, told Business Insider that she believes the software would work if used at a broader scale across the state — however, the more than 1,800 jurisdictions in Wisconsin decide on voting systems locally, so a wide rollout isn’t possible to mandate top-down. According to Burt, the software is unlikely to be used in the current national election cycle.
Microsoft hopes that its software can solve an underlying problem facing democracy: lack of public trust. While Zimmerman said ElectionGuard has won her confidence, she faced some pushback from skeptical friends when she posted about the new technology on Facebook.
“One of my friends ended up commenting, ‘Why would you use such expensive equipment that can be hacked?'” Zimmerman recalled. “I do hear people’s concerns about this, but we just have to keep explaining it to them.”