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Nonprofit’s Free App Flags Suspicious Changes to Voter Rolls

As concerns arise of international meddling in U.S. elections, nonpartisan nonprofit Protect Democracy has created a free Web app for secretaries of state to keep an eye on their voter rolls in case of hacking or tampering.

As federal, state and local governments come to grips with intelligence findings about Russia’s influence on the 2016 election, several organizations have taken the news as a call to action. Earlier this month, Microsoft and Galois announced new software tools to establish verifiable voting systems, and local officials in various jurisdictions are debating about security spending and policy fixes.

For one nonpartisan nonprofit in Washington, D.C., Protect Democracy, the situation has warranted getting into the software game for the first time with a free Web application to help election administrators track changes to voter databases. Ideally, the application could prevent a scenario in which voters are turned away from their polling places on Election Day because their name or other information doesn’t match what’s on file, because the voter records have been tampered with.

The application, VoteShield, has been under development since 2017 but is now in use in 14 states, with plans to be in 19 by the end of the year, according to Protect Democracy’s project lead Quinn Raymond. Raymond described VoteShield as a secure Web application, to be authenticated by election administrators, which uses basic statistics, machine learning and data visualization to analyze changes in local voter databases and flag unusual activity.

The application itself is not a liability to election security, he said, as it analyzes publicly available records but has no way to alter them.

“Whenever we find an anomaly, we spend a lot of time reviewing it and contextualizing it within where we are in the election calendar, what might be normal for that jurisdiction, and what is a typical, expected change or maintenance,” Raymond said.

He said VoteShield was developed in-house but with feedback and guidance from election administrators, including Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate to secure the 2018 election in that state. Raymond said his organization has been working with some colleges as well, expanding into other states which are not yet public.

Tim Hagle, an associate professor of political science at the University of Iowa, told Government Technology he got involved with Protect Democracy last year, reviewing the data produced by VoteShield for Pate. He said Pate’s office uploads voter data to the site every week, then VoteShield organizes and presents it with trend lines, demographics and anomalies. If Hagle sees anything out of the ordinary, he brings it up with Pate.

Asked about the frequency of tampering with voter data, Hagle called it “an emerging problem” among many.

“When I look at the data, then I’m looking for something that’s odd from one week to another. So if you have a spike in registrations, or a spike in removals, or name changes or anything like that, that might signal a problem,” he said. “We know that certain entities, whoever they may be, are trying to get into the systems. That’s not surprising to anybody at this point. The question is, if they are successful in getting in and doing something with the data, will we be able to figure it out? And that’s what VoteShield is about.”

Raymond said Protect Democracy intends to offer VoteShield for free to state and local election administrators through the 2020 election. Software is new territory for the nonprofit, which compiles news and data on its website and is staffed by attorneys, former intelligence officers and communication strategists, with the stated mission of “preventing American democracy from declining into a more authoritarian form of government.”

That mission statement suggests meeting threats to democracy wherever they crop up, and recently, that has come to mean cybersecurity.

“I think it’s immensely challenging to be an election administrator in the United States in 2019, and I hope that tools like VoteShield can make it a little bit easier,” he said.

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.