Technology

Microsoft takes aim at election credibility with wisconsin software test

Microsoft takes aim at election credibility with wisconsin software test
The process aims to marry existing voting systems with advanced encryption. (Image: Bloomberg)

Microsoft Corp tested for the first time in a live election security software that executives say will help restore the trust of voters shaken by claims of fraud, hacking and disinformation in the 2016 election.

The company piloted its solution to verify results, a system called ElectionGuard, with voters in Fulton, Wisconsin, who chose candidates Tuesday for state Supreme Court. The process aims to marry existing voting systems with advanced encryption and components of the Xbox game player to spit out data ensuring that ballots are counted.

Research indicates “people don’t really trust the outcome of elections,” Tom Burt, Microsoft’s corporate vice president for customer security & trust, said last week while previewing the ElectionGuard test. “When we saw the Russians attacking democracy through trying to influence elections around the world, not just in the U.S., we concluded this was a step we needed to take.“

The Seattle-based software giant and local election officials expected about 500 voters in Fulton — population 3,200 — to cast ballots and test the system, which was not used to document official results. The system appeared to be operating glitch-free as polls approached the final hour of voting.

Microsoft’s tool is one of many proposals to incorporate technology into American elections. From apps to tabulate caucus results to cloud-based voting platforms, election administrators are embracing 2020 as the year of testing novel technology.

Proponents say gadgetry can improve accessibility, efficiency and the accuracy of election results, particularly strengthening the credibility of close races. Critics contend that devices connected to the internet can be hacked and used to attack that very credibility.

This is where Microsoft said it has found a niche: hacking ElectionGuard wouldn’t accomplish anything, Burt said, because the tool doesn’t individually match a voter with the choices made, it just confirms that the voter’s ballot was tallied.

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Wisconsin’s election administrators contend tools like ElectionGuard are critical to reinvigorating citizen confidence because of the state’s complex voting systems. Wisconsin hosts about 1,850 autonomous voting jurisdictions, which all select their own voting equipment.

The test of Microsoft’s system on Tuesday and the verification aspect is an “important step in involving the voters in that conversation,” said Meagan Wolfe, administrator of the Wisconsin Elections Commission.

While Fulton voters found it easy to use, they weren’t sure what problem it solved.

“It’s a little bit different and I’m not sure everybody would be receptive to it” across the state, said Connie Zimmerman who has served as town clerk since 2006.

While Burt is hopeful that ElectionGuard will be used widely by the 2022 mid-term elections, federal regulations stand in his way. The complex process of certifying voting systems has been under review since before the 2016 election. Without resolution, adoption could be difficult.

Burt said Microsoft has been approached by overseas partners seeking to adopt the technology. By making the system open-source and free, election administrators outside the U.S. may be the first to push the technology beyond its initial pilot phase, he said.