What Election Technology Actions Are Needed Now?

The 2016 U.S. presidential election shined a light on outdated election technology. So what steps must be taken and what technology upgrades are needed to restore the public trust in how we select our government leaders? Going further, how can all government service kiosks be made more secure and reliable? Let’s explore.

by Dan Lohrmann / January 15, 2017 0
credit: Jeff Fitlow/Rice University

Does election technology need to be upgraded across America? What is the connection between old voting equipment and a lack of public trust in election results? What can be done to calm fears of hacking in future elections? What new technology is needed now?

To explore these and other questions, I interviewed several industry experts, including Antonio Mugica, the founder and CEO of the Smartmatic Group and Howard Horn II, the President of Advanced Kiosks.

Background on Election Tech

Recent headlines have focused on foreign hacking and fake news that may have influenced voters in 2016. While recounts in several states and other election security investigation activities have not uncovered any hacking of voter machines, numerous experts have called for election security changes in process and technology moving forward.

A December 2016 study found that eight in 10 voters and nearly 90 percent of poll workers believe upgrades to the nation’s voting technology will strengthen and build trust in elections.

The research results were released by Smartmatic Corporation, a leading voting technology company. The survey, which was conducted by Edelman Intelligence, also found that one in five Americans who voted in the presidential contest do not fully trust that the national election results were accurately tabulated; and one in three have concerns about the accuracy of the voting technology used at their polling place.

Furthermore, as depicted in the chart below, one in three voters say that the voting technology they used was outdated.

 

Interview With Antonio Mugica — Founder and CEO of the Smartmatic Group

 

Dan Lohrmann (DL): What steps need to be taken to ensure that future elections are trustworthy and to restore public confidence in voting technology?

Antonio Mugica: Although no one has proven that voting technology was compromised or that votes suffered any relevant alteration, the overall conversation about the election is that "it was hacked." Unfortunately, public opinion — misled by unreliable news sources — is confusing email servers and online registration portals with voting technology, thus casting a shadow of doubt on the voting and counting systems.

According to a survey we conducted, one in five Americans don’t fully trust that the national election results were accurately tabulated — a percentage of the population that should be unacceptable in the country that identifies itself with democracy first. Our survey was conducted during election week, but it might be safe to predict that this percentage has increased after the conversation about "the hacking of the elections" has continued.

Taking these factors into consideration, there are a few key steps I believe are necessary to secure America’s election systems.

First, the U.S. needs to upgrade its voting infrastructure. While the United States is one of the world’s leading democracies, its election systems are outdated — a problem studies continue to illustrate. Upgrades are required to ensure old systems are replaced with more secure and transparent technology.

Second, the Elections Assistance Commission must set and firmly enforce updated security and transparency standards across all states to safeguard election data.

Third, states must take steps to perform audits before and after elections, monitoring for issues that may require action so that they can respond quicker, as well as demonstrating election integrity to restore public trust.

Finally, as voting technology evolves to include more digital systems, we must produce electronic and paper-based audit trails as a means to continue building trust.

DL: What obstacles must be overcome in order to make these steps a reality?

Antonio Mugica: The United States must first find the political will to begin a national debate on the need to modernize its elections. Garnering this political will is an obstacle, not only here in the United States but in almost every other country we have helped improve elections.

Once this challenge is circumvented, then local governments have to deal with the costs of acquiring new technology. The upfront investment needed to upgrade the voting infrastructure usually presents an economic burden to most local governments. However, once the investment is made, the individual costs of each election are reduced. In 2000, after the Florida "hanging chad" episode, the country faced a similar situation. With the help of federal funding, states were able to update the infrastructure that is today nearing the end of its life cycle.

Another challenge lies in re-engaging the public. The United States, a beacon of democracy, cannot tolerate the relatively low participation it has had in recent decades. It is imperative to build trust in the political process itself, educate citizens on the technologies and work required to improve the voting infrastructure, and drive action that will better secure the future of America’s democracy. Somewhat encouraging for local governments, our research indicates 69 percent of voters and 82 percent of poll workers would support initiatives to advocate for or fund improvements to voting technology.

DL: Do you think blockchain technology will likely be part of the voting technology solution implemented by 2018 or by 2020? Why or why not?

Antonio Mugica: Given the increased threats to the security of U.S. democracy, it’s more important than ever to ensure that votes are protected from malicious outsider attacks and inherent human error. Vote protection can be provided by end-to-end encryption, and the integrity of the digital ballot box can be irrefutably demonstrated through the use of immutable public ledger technology such as blockchain.

I believe it is only a matter of time before blockchain-like technologies gain more widespread use within the U.S. voting system as a way of proving that the security measures put in place to protect the votes have operated effectively and to unequivocally demonstrate that vote manipulation has not taken place. In fact, blockchain technology has already been successfully deployed by Smartmatic in the online voting solution we provided for the Utah Republican Party.

 

Interview With Howard Horn II, President of Advanced Kiosks

As we think about these election issues, it is also important to recognize that similar technology is also used in a wide range of other government services. In that regard, I interviewed the leader of a company that offers a wide range of government kiosk services around the country.

DL: Are there significant differences between election technology and other government kiosks that must be trustworthy and secure?

Howard Horn II: All kiosks need to be secure. The investment in self-service technology by the government or any organization is substantial, and the equipment has to be reliable and secure. The unique problem of a kiosk when voting is that the person has to be verified while the result has to be anonymous so that no person’s voting record is being recorded. The process of paper that we have used for years had checks and balances from elections officials, comprised of the judge of the election, inspectors, clerks and party overseers. This process is what keeps the data secure and needs to be the case when using interactive kiosks for voting.

DL: What further steps do you think need to be taken to ensure that all government kiosks are secure and trustworthy as we roll out more self-service applications?

Howard Horn II: Keeping up with technology and practices is vital. Larger companies tend to have technical managers who help develop standards with one of the Web standard organizations: ICANN, WC3 or The Web Standards Project. These organizations help define best practices that create updated standards for Web security.

Many of the government projects we get involved with have separate hardware and software requirements that dictate how the project is to be done. Many times, if we were brought into the process earlier and had the ability to work with the different stakeholders, we could not only help design a more secure system but also save the organization money.

DL: Do you think blockchain technology will likely be part of the technology solution for government kiosks (including election equipment) implemented by 2018 or by 2020?

Howard Horn II: To use blockchain is a design decision which needs to be evaluated together with other design decisions and taken into account with the whole system. Blockchain would ensure election results at a polling location are fair and accurate. The process has to ensure the checks and balances are there to secure the process to show the American voters that their votes are secure and the results are accurate.

Furthermore, Marshall Nye, from our Advanced Kiosks Dev Ops team, said this: “I think blockchain tech could be used to great effect, assuming that issues with the systems (kiosk, voting machine, etc.) inputting data to the blockchain are addressed. Unless we ensure that the data entry points are secure, then the fundamental value of blockchain systems is reduced. A database is only as good as the data fed into it, and the kiosk and person using the kiosks are by orders of magnitude easier to manipulate than blockchain. That being said, I can see how blockchain would increase the speed and accuracy of self-service and data-entry (though in a voting system, how one could reconcile the inherent anonymity of votes while ensuring 1 vote per person might prove challenging). Whether or not current government systems can integrate with the blockchain is an additional hurdle. I wouldn’t be surprised that some of the larger government organizations would have trouble innovating at a quick pace depending on the resources available to them. I’d be hard pressed to believe they could move to a new database system by 2018”

Closing Thoughts

Any list of actions required to improve election technology must also address governance issues and disagreements between local, state and federal leaders. An article published last week by govtech.com pointed out that new election cyberprotections are causing confusion and concern.

Here’s an excerpt of the quote from the National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS), "While we recognize the need to share information on threats and risk mitigation in our elections at all levels of government, as we did throughout the 2016 cycle, it is unclear why a critical infrastructure classification is now necessary for this purpose."

Since states have the authority and budgets to run elections, expect quite a bit of finger-pointing and budget battles over election technology in the coming years. Nevertheless, it is clear to me that election technology upgrades are needed and coming.

While I expect to see quite a bit of jostling for position, get ready for a grand coalition of different stakeholders to come together to address our many voting challenges.

If we can build robots with artificial intelligence, and if we can build cars that will drive autonomously, and if we can see distant galaxies with new high-powered telescopes. ...

Can we hold a trustworthy election that can’t be hacked in 2020?

We shall find out soon enough.