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Microsoft, Galois to Release Open Source ‘ElectionGuard’ SDK

Planned for release on GitHub this summer, a software development kit aims to supplement paper ballot systems to make them end-to-end verifiable. That could allow voters to verify for themselves that their vote was counted.

In the past three months, North Carolina state investigators found coordinated ballot tampering during the 2018 election, the FBI announced Russia might have successfully hacked a Florida county’s network, and Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report found “sweeping and systemic” election interference by Russia in 2016.

Election security for 2020 is already a hot-button issue, and Microsoft has moved to get in front of it with a free, open source software development kit (SDK) called ElectionGuard. Announced this week at a conference in Seattle and described at length on the company’s blog, ElectionGuard proposes to make elections more secure, accessible and efficient by allowing election officials and technology vendors to build end-to-end verifiable (E2E-V) voting systems.

Ideally, an E2E-V system cannot be cheated without detection because it allows voters and third-party organizations to confirm that votes were unaltered and properly counted. ElectionGuard does this by supplementing the paper ballot process in two ways: by giving each voter a unique code that will let them track an encrypted version of the vote through an online portal provided by election authorities; and by providing an open specification, or template, that lets anyone write an election verifier to confirm votes have been accurately counted.

ElectionGuard is a product of Microsoft’s Defending Democracy Program, built in partnership with security tech company Galois and set to be released through GitHub this summer. Both Microsoft and Galois, in its own blog about the project, stressed that this SDK is supposed to be usable by anyone, from high-volume precincts supplementing their current voting machines to high school programmers making an election system for their school.

ElectionGuard also supports statistical administrative auditing, and Microsoft is building a reference voting system for potential users to see other functions, such as the ability to research and choose candidates at home and then bring a QR code to the polling place to pre-populate their ballot.

Aiming to inspire a broader, long-term process of improving election security and convenience, Microsoft and Galois partnered with voting technology companies Democracy Live, Election Systems & Software, Hart InterCivic, BPro, MicroVote and VotingWorks. Democracy Live co-founder and President Bryan Finney — also the vice chair of the Department of Homeland Security’s Voting Sector Executive Committee — said the biggest value of Microsoft’s new SDK is bringing its expertise in security protocols to the electoral process.

“What Microsoft is doing is, it’s helping the industry move forward with the types of security that are required in 21st-century voting and elections,” he said. “Of course with all the talk of Russia and the impact that foreign state actors may have in the electoral process, having players like Microsoft enter this field to protect the integrity of the voting process is what the industry has needed for decades now.”

While he’s aware of the widespread effort to crack a true online or blockchain voting solution, Finney thinks that’s well over 10 years off — there will be announcements and pilots, he said, but they won’t succeed until state laws change.

Finney said the fastest method of voting in the U.S. is still by mail, so the next big thing will involve being able to download and fill a ballot via mobile device or the cloud, then submit it by mail or in person.

“Eventually we’ll get to a point where you can actually be able to count your ballot, but in the short term, I think you’re going to see more and more states going to the cloud to load their ballots and be able to have a backup,” he said. “If there’s an earthquake in California or a hurricane in Florida or other reasons why voters can’t get to the polls, they’ll be able to go online and get their ballot. I think that’s the next big wave of voting in America. We’re starting to do it in California, Washington and all around the country.”

Andrew Westrope is managing editor of the Center for Digital Education. Before that, he was a staff writer for Government Technology, and previously was a reporter and editor at community newspapers. He has a bachelor’s degree in physiology from Michigan State University and lives in Northern California.