Citing concerns of election fraud, Microsoft is releasing ballot-tracking software, NPR reported. The software kit will allow voters to track their votes as they go through the counting process and notify them if and when tampering occurs. This tool aims to secure our increasingly vulnerable voting system.
Microsoft’s “ElectionGuard” will provide each voter with a unique code. Once the voter has verified that his or her vote is correct, the code works like a shipment tracking number. It can be entered into a website and tracked from the time the vote is cast until it has been counted. The voter and the contents of the vote remain completely anonymous. In an interview given to NPR for the article about ElectionGuard, Microsoft Vice President of Customer Security and Trust Tom Burt likened the toolkit to a tamper-proof bottle. “Tamper-proof bottles don’t prevent any hack of the contents of the bottle, but it makes it harder—and it definitely reveals when the tampering has occurred.” So what exactly is the life cycle of the democratic voting system, and how is it at stake?
The Six-Step Election System: Steps 1 through 3
“The first part of any election system is registration—this is when you sign up to vote, and in essence, get the authorization to do so, in the form of a voting card,” said Professor Paul Rosenzweig, Professorial Lecturer in Law at The George Washington University Law School. Professor Rosenzweig mentioned that you can register to vote when you get a driver’s license in a new state or take the oath of citizenship. “While that’s convenient, it also means the system offers more points of vulnerability to attack,” he said.
Of course, once registered, your information must be retained somewhere. The second step is each state’s database of registered voters. These databases store your name, address, and political party affiliation. “This database is probably the most vulnerable place within each state’s election system, because it is the point where any or all of a state’s voter rolls could be eliminated by malicious interference,” Professor Rosenzweig said.
The third step involves “voting logs,” which are books letting local precincts know your voting registration information and which local ballot to give you. Why differentiate if we’re free to vote for anyone we choose? “It says that I’m qualified to vote for the presidential election and on a referendum, but not, perhaps, on this particular property tax issue because I don’t own any property,” Professor Rosenzweig said. He also pointed out that the process of dividing each state’s database into precincts is vulnerable because private companies are often hired to do so and the government offers no guarantees of the level of security used by each company.
The Six-Step Election System: Steps 4 through 6
Next, the voter finally gets to vote. This fourth step of the voting process specifically pertains to showing up at your polling place, receiving your ballot, being checked off by a poll worker, and filling out your form. Votes are either cast by paper only, electronically only, or a combination of the two. Unfortunately, electronic voting is very subjective to hacking. A legal demonstration video posted online last year showed a voting machine used in 18 states being compromised in two minutes. Hackers don’t need to change votes to alter an election; they simply need to perform a tiny action like changing one letter of spelling in a name in order to have a voter turned away at the polls.
“The fifth part of the election system involves actually taking all those votes that were cast in each state’s precincts and adding them up,” Professor Rosenzweig said. “The sum of all the precincts gets reported, usually electronically via the internet, to the Secretary of State.”
Finally, the sixth piece of this puzzle is the “post-election audit,” which handles selective recounts to ensure accuracy. Professor Rosenzweig points out that not every single vote is recounted. If a precinct’s initial count tallies 60% votes for Candidate A and 40% for Candidate B, a quick verification showing 59% for Candidate A and 41% for Candidate B won’t raise any alarms, but a verification that shows 40% for A and 60% for B will warrant a larger-scale investigation and recount.
Currently, the electronic portion of the six-point voting process is susceptible to manipulation at nearly every turn. From database fraud to tally editing, hackers are able to interfere with our elections. Companies like Microsoft aim to provide the first step in solutions to election security, but we still need additional measures to ensure the democratic process.
Professor Paul Rosenzweig contributed to this article. He is a Professorial Lecturer in Law at The George Washington University Law School. He earned his J.D. from the University of Chicago Law School and then served as a law clerk to the Honorable R. Lanier Anderson III of the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.