The News: There hasn’t been much news around the launch of Microsoft’s ElectionGuard software, but it could be a very big deal—not for the 2020 election season, but perhaps for the midterm elections in 2022. A small group of voters in the Wisconsin town of Fulton tested the product yesterday, on Election Day, as they cast votes for the local school board as well as for the state supreme court. According to the Wisconsin Elections Commission, the ElectionGuard tech won’t be responsible for counting the votes, the paper ballots will be counted by election officials. Today, anyway. This was intended as a small test, testing the software, providing feedback to Microsoft, and seeing what voters using voting machine that use ElectionGuard software think. More on this from CNBC.
Microsoft’s ElectionGuard Software Could Have Far-Reaching Impact
Analyst Take: Microsoft’s ElectionGuard is a free open-source software development kit (SDK) that is intended to make voting more secure, transparent, efficient, and accessible. I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that there’s probably never been a time in American politics (and elsewhere across the world) where there’s been more of a need for trust, transparency, and security in the voting process was more important.
The ElectionGuard Goal — Protecting Democratic Elections Through Secure, Verifiable Voting
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella announced ElectionGuard at the Microsoft Build developer conference in May of 2019 as part of the company’s Defending Democracy Program. Microsoft’s announcements about ElectionGuard include this statement:
“We believe technology companies have a responsibility to help protect our democratic processes and institutions. Modern technology can be used to ensure the voting process is resilient. At the same time, ElectionGuard is not intended to replace paper ballots but rather to supplement and improve systems that rely on them, and it is not designed to support internet voting. In short, Election Guard is a new tool for use by the existing election community and government entities that run elections.”
Microsoft’s ElectionGuard SDK is intended to help election technology suppliers build systems featuring these five benefits that both protect against vote tampering and also improving the voting process for all:
- Verifiable: Allowing both voters and third-party organizations to verify election results.
- Secure: The SDK features advanced encryption capabilities.
- Auditable: The SDK supports risk-limiting audits helping to assure the accuracy of elections.
- Open Source: The SDK is flexible, can be used with off the shelf hardware, and is free.
- Make Voting Better: Improving the experience for all, and also providing standard accessibility tools.
The Deets About Microsoft’s Defending Democracy Program
Microsoft’s Defending Democracy Program was launched in the spring of 2018, as a follow up to the company’s Top Ten Tech Issues for 2018 report, which identified 2018 as a critical year for governments and technology companies to join together in an attempt to safeguard electoral processes. The Defending Democracy Program’s focus is on reducing and eliminating threats to democratic processes from cyber-enabled interference. The program’s goals include:
- Protecting campaigns from hacking by way of an increase in account monitoring and incident response capabilities, as well as an increase in cyber resilience.
- Increasing political advertising transparency online by way of both self-regulation and supporting legislative action supporting this.
- Exploring tech solutions and work with local, state, and federal officials with a view of preserving and protecting electoral processes.
- Defending against state disinformation campaigns.
How Microsoft’s ElectionGuard Works
The short version of how Microsoft’s ElectionGuard works relies on a process called “homomorphic encryption” that was developed over 30 years ago by Microsoft cryptographer Josh Benaloh.
Votes are intended to be private. Microsoft’s encryption keeps votes secret by converting choices into random lines of code until they are encrypted. But the important part of this process is that votes shouldn’t be decrypted, they should remain private, which is where homomorphic encryption comes in—it allows for the counting of votes while the data remains secure and private.
The ElectionGuard technology makes it possible for only the final tally to be decrypted, not the individual, private votes. Add to that the fact that Microsoft’s ElectionGuard tech is intended to run in parallel to paper ballots, acting as a reliable, verifiable, backup if you will.
Microsoft’s ElectionGuard in the Wild
So now it’s out there, in the wild. Microsoft’s ElectionGuard technology was in use on machines in Fulton, Wisconsin on Election Day yesterday. Votes themselves are encrypted using a technique designed by the team at Microsoft Research, and nobody can see how an individual voted.
How does it work? What’s the actual user experience? A voter uses a voting machine using Microsoft’s ElectionGuard software to cast their vote. They make their sections using a touchscreen and when done, a printer connected to the voting device using ElectionGuard software prints two copies of their ballot selections. The voter confirms the accuracy of the vote, the drops one into the ballot box, which will then be manually counted. The second copy of the ballot is intended as a record that features a QR code the voter can use to go online to ensure their vote was counted.
For purposes of the test yesterday in Fulton, the experience was more about testing the system and also getting voter feedback on the process than it was actually being involved in counting votes. The county election officials will still count paper votes for purposes of this primary, but it is possible, once the systems featuring the Microsoft technology are certified by the state to use the system to electronically tally votes.
Microsoft has made it clear that they expect its testing of this product to be slow and careful—it’s too important (IMO) to do otherwise. That’s why this first test was in a tiny market with about 500 registered voters, with the ElectionGuard serving as a backup to paper ballots, not the primary voting method. Microsoft’s vice president for customer security and trust remarked on this by saying, “We’re basically trying to test it in a very controlled environment where the outcome of the election is in no way dependent on the technology. We just want to test it, ‘How does it work? What can we learn? What (do) we need to change and improve?’”
I’ve not yet seen much in terms of reporting or interviews about voter feedback from the Fulton, WI test—and maybe there wasn’t much, or feedback was kept close to the vest. That would be understandable. But as someone who’s both a customer experience (CX) and a user experience (UX) freak, I’d be very interested in hearing post-ballot-casting commentary from the voters, election officials, and poll workers.
The Challenge for Election Tech Vendors
While this is very cool, I also believe there are challenges ahead for election tech vendors, even those using Microsoft’s ElectionGuard SDK. Here’s why: As a tech savvy consumer, I use technology all the time—no surprises there. But I will admit that when it comes to voting, based on occurrences over the past few years, I am leery of technology in the process. I’ve shied away from electronic voting and gone all paper ballot all the time.
Relying on technology in the voting process has a long track record of trouble, from hackability to the recent debacle at the Iowa caucuses, trust in technology and voting are often two things that don’t go together.
This is where both marketing and tests in the field like the one in Fulton, WI can play a big role in our collective ability to make inroads with regard to election security. Microsoft’s ElectionGuard software can’t help improve and verify the accuracy of the voting process if people don’t understand what it does, why that’s important (and different from what they’re accustomed to), and why they can trust it.
While Microsoft might not want to be in the election software business, the company probably has more of an ability, from a brand credibility standpoint and a marketing clout standpoint to market and promote this technology than its vendor partners might.
Consumers don’t “see” who providers of election technology and voting machines are, and they don’t necessarily care, either. In fact, most of us don’t even know who the key election tech vendors are. But consumers do know Microsoft. It’s a trusted brand, a trusted name, and maker of products that billions of people use and rely on daily. So, while Microsoft might say it doesn’t want be in the election vendor business, I believe that in order for this technology to be widely adopted by a variety of election tech vendors, that Microsoft needs to play what is likely to be a large role—in both the marketing of the capabilities and in the veracity of the technology.
Microsoft is a Prime Example of Big Tech Doing More – Because It Can
Challenges aside, what I like most about Microsoft’s ElectionGuard SDK is that it, quite simply, is an example of Big Tech doing more because it can—and we are starting to see this on the regular from Microsoft, whether it’s about a focus on corporate social responsibility and sustainability, or ensuring the safety of democracy. I’m an unabashed fan. At a time when it’s difficult to impossible to trust companies like Facebook, Twitter, and others, often motivated by ad dollars above all, it is nice to see a company doing something because they can.
From a timing standpoint, I don’t see there’s much if any chance of Microsoft ElectionGuard software being used in the upcoming presidential elections, it seems too soon for that and that there’s much testing like what we just saw in Wisconsin ahead, along with a need for some serious marketing. But maybe the company’s beta testing will continue during the 2020 elections, with greater turnout and more “stress” on the system and its capabilities.
I’ll cross my fingers for mass adoption of ElectionGuard by the midterm elections in 2022. This could easily be one of the most important products Microsoft has ever developed—at least so far.
Futurum Research provides industry research and analysis. These columns are for educational purposes only and should not be considered in any way investment advice.