Microsoft has advanced the project to implement ElectionGuard, its open source program developed in 2019 that makes voting in an election more transparent, allowing citizens to verify if their vote has been changed or counted. On Thursday (3), the developer got a partner for the distribution of its voting software: Hart InterCivic, one of the three big suppliers of electronic voting machines in the USA.
Microsoft ElectionGuard will be on 12-state polls
ElectionGuard is just a software that is installed in electronic voting machines, as a kind of sophisticated plugin, to encrypt all the data of a big or small vote, but also to make it more transparent. The program counts the votes, preserving the voter’s secret identity, to show if their decision has been tampered with in any way. After counting, he is able to pinpoint the winner.
From now on, every Hart InterCivic electronic voting machine will have ElectionGuard embedded in its code; it will offer faster and more secure counting, while storing the vote count in a backup, which can be issued by note. The company’s machines are used in polls in more than a dozen states like Texas, California, Michigan and North Carolina – some of them decided the 2020 presidential race in the last few moments, granting the victory to Joe Biden.
Software arrives to stop fraud allegations
Microsoft’s main concern when developing ElectionGuard is precisely to eliminate the arguments of fraud in elections, or that electoral systems are biased. The company first tested the program in 2020, in a dispute for a seat on the Supreme Court in a city of 3,000 in the US state of Wisconsin. It’s one thing to run a small election, the other is to oversee the votes that choose the president. But the developer seems to have that in mind.
Large democracies have suffered from the onslaught of politicians on electoral systems. In the US, former President Donald Trump admitted defeat three months after the election, which he even called fraud. In Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro has stated on some occasions that he has proof that he won the 2018 elections in the first round, and insists on exchanging electronic voting machines for the printed vote, alleging that the current machines produce fraudulent results.
Change is already very welcome in the United States; in January of that year, the Pew Center polling institute found that 75 percent of Trump’s voters think he probably or definitely won the election. In Arizona, Republican delegates are still insisting on recounting votes, hoping to reverse the Democratic victory.
“Election inspectors are eager for any tool that streamlines the audit and verification process and increases transparency, which in turn increases voter confidence,” says Julie Mathies, president and CEO of Hart InterCivic, told Wired. “It’s important that this product is designed to meet the needs of real-world elections.”
ElectionGuard uses homomorphic encryption technique
To allow both secure and transparent voting, ElectionGuard uses an algorithmic technique called homomorphic cryptography. Basically, it’s a mathematical code capable of secretly counting votes — which is impossible to do by conventional means. Each encrypted vote is added together and generates a result that is, of course, decoded – this is the moment when the program reveals who won the contest.
Homomorphic cryptography is the work of a decade of Microsoft research, led by Josh Benaloh, the company’s senior cryptographer. As an open source tool, any authority or ordinary citizen can follow the encrypted vote log and see how ElectionGuard does the math to arrive at the result. And the software, as well as the reference to the voting system used by big tech, is available on GitHub.
Another advantage of open source: the technology security community itself can help improve ElectionGuard by detecting flaws and errors. This accessibility does away with an American voter insecurity that ballot box makers alter votes and manipulate elections. Generally, these companies are against polling pollsters, which fuels the theory that machines are unsafe to decide who will be the next president, for example.
In this video, IBM clarifies why homomorphic cryptography is important for data handling not just for elections, but for networking technology. The video is in English, but YouTube has Portuguese subtitles.
Tom Burt, Microsoft’s vice president of consumer security, told Wired who is excited that ElectionGuard is in the hands of one of the top three electronic voting machines in the US: “Hart understands this will work if their customers find the solution useful. And that’s what Microsoft couldn’t offer — market knowledge of what election officials needed. Now we can see, in the future, technology being used by voters.”
Microsoft itself says that future may not be very close. Even in the US, Hart InterCivic relies on state approval to deploy the ballot boxes with open source software.
Still, Microsoft’s initiative paves the way for auditable open source election systems that at the same time protect privacy and the secret ballot. More than that, it is a defense that voting machines in elections work and should probably be the future of voting.
With information: Wired