Microsoft conducted the first official test of its ElectionGuard voting security software in an election for the local school board and a state supreme court seat in Fulton, Wisconsin, in late February 2020. The software, which was created as part of the tech giant’s “Defending Democracy” project, is intended to make elections more secure and trustworthy.
More than a year later, widespread mistrust and division surrounding the 2020 presidential election has aided the case for this type of technology.
“I don’t think there’s been a more important time in history for vendors to try building this technology into their systems because of its ability to build trust in the electoral process,” Tom Burt, Microsoft’s corporate vice president of customer security and trust, told CNN Business.
On Thursday, Microsoft (MSFT) announced the first ElectionGuard implementation with Hart InterCivic, a major US voting technology vendor. Hart provides its voting system to election officials in more than 500 jurisdictions across 17 states, making it one of the top three election vendors in the country.
Hart will be the first major election technology vendor to offer voters end-to-end verification that their ballots were counted correctly, according to the companies.
Hart has already started talking to the election officials it works with about putting the ElectionGuard software to the test in the upcoming elections. In the end, Microsoft hopes for widespread adoption of the technology in time for the 2024 presidential election.
“We believe we must constantly re-imagine how technology can make voting more secure and also more transparent, and this partnership with Microsoft is a strong step in that direction,” said Julie Mathis, CEO of Hart InterCivic.
Hart’s voting process will remain largely unchanged for voters: voters will fill out either a paper ballot or select their choices on a machine and print them out at designated polling places. After that, they’ll scan their paper ballots with a Hart scanner. That scanner will now be equipped with ElectionGuard software, which will encrypt ballots as soon as they are scanned.
ElectionGuard uses a process known as “homomorphic encryption” to individually secure each vote; after polls close, this encryption allows you to tally votes and decrypt results without having to decrypt individual ballots.
This reduces the chances of vote tampering: if a bad actor wanted to favor a specific candidate, they’d have to go through the trouble of decrypting each vote just to figure out which ones to change.
After the polls close, election officials can use a verifier application that uses a mathematical equation to determine if votes have been tampered with. If no votes were tampered with, the equation will produce the expected result due to the encryption process. If the answer is different, election officials should use back-up paper ballots to double-check the election results.
The software is based on the assumption that it is impossible to prevent a bad actor from compromising a voting system with 100% certainty. As a result, ElectionGuard ensures that if a hack occurs, election officials will be notified immediately and will be prepared with alternate vote-counting options, removing the incentive for election meddling.
Preventing election tampering is a top priority for election officials. The US government discovered that adversaries such as Iran and Russia were attempting to sabotage the democratic process by interfering in the 2020 presidential election.
Individual voters can also confirm that their vote was counted correctly using the ElectionGuard software, which is another key feature. Each voter will receive a code after voting that they can use the next day to check their ballot — the same verifier application that confirms there was no vote tampering can also confirm that voters’ ballots were tallied correctly.
“I see a huge potential transformation in trust for those who are distrustful, giving them the ability to confirm that their vote was counted,” Burt said on Thursday.
Microsoft developed ElectionGuard as a non-profit initiative and it is free, open-source software.