ElectionGuard to the Rescue?: Microsoft’s New Election Software May Help Alleviate Fears About Election Security - Fordham Intellectual Property, Media & Entertainment Law Journal
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ElectionGuard to the Rescue?: Microsoft’s New Election Software May Help Alleviate Fears About Election Security

ElectionGuard to the Rescue?: Microsoft’s New Election Software May Help Alleviate Fears About Election Security

As Election Day 2020 approaches, concerns about election security are coming to the forefront. In the wake of the 2016 elections, Americans were made aware of the frailties of some voting equipments and infrastructure. Much of the voting software and many of the voting machines used throughout the country are over a decade old. This outdated infrastructure makes it vulnerable to security breaches.1 Some software is so old that its security patches or updates are no longer even available.2 Despite the awareness of these risks, officials have done little to improve election systems, often due to the lack of resources at the local level.3 Bills to increase funding for new equipment and software have floundered.4

However, some local officials who do have the resources and capabilities have taken matters into their own hands.5 Los Angeles County spent $300 million over the past ten years to develop their own government-designed and owned Voting Solutions for All People 2.0 system (“VSAP”).6 However, numerous security gaps in the system—used by Los Angeles County on Super Tuesday—are still troubling security experts.7 Some of these issues were fixed after election security experts raised concerns, but some flaws were not addressed prior to Super Tuesday.8 These gaps raise the concern that someone with physical access to the system could alter the software on voting machines, allowing them to tamper with results in future elections.9 For instance, the machine provides a printout which the voters can use to verify their selections, but it is the voter selection embedded QR code which is the official vote—not the human-readable portion.10

Some people are so concerned about the vulnerabilities of paperless voting systems that they want to get rid of them altogether. In 2018, a group of nine senators introduced a bill that would require state and local governments to use paper ballots.11 A lawsuit was brought by a group of voters in Shelby County, Tennessee challenging the security of voting machines and seeking a court order mandating papers ballots and verifiable papers trials. The lawsuit was dismissed on standing grounds.12 Microsoft has introduced a new product that may help quell some of these fears.

In May 2019, Microsoft announced ElectionGuard, its open-source voting-machine software.13 It hopes to address some of the security concerns about outdated voting machines and softwares. Because it is an open-source, it is free and adaptable to any machine.14 This may prove helpful to those communities with limited resources who are unable to overhaul their outdated election systems.

Voters make a choice on a touchscreen similar to how they would on a typical system. This vote is encrypted using “homomorphic encryption.”15 Homomorphic encryption keep ballots private by allowing the vote to be tallied while still encrypted, unlike typical encryption which would require decryption prior to counting, exposing voter identity. 16 The voter then prints two copies of their vote. One copy can be checked before placing it in the ballot box. The second copy has a QR code the voter can use later to verify that there vote was counted and counted correctly.17 This allays some of the concerns with the Los Angeles County system. The paper copy—not the digital encrypted file—serves as the official vote. The paper copies are tallied and if the tally differs from the digital tally, it will be clear something is wrong.18 Microsoft is not promising a system that cannot be hacked, but rather, a system that would be pointless to hack.19 Tom Burt, Microsoft’s Vice President of Customer Security and Trust has described the system as a tamper proof bottle, saying “Tamper-proof bottles don’t prevent any hack of the contents of the bottle, but it makes it makes it harder, and it definitely reveals when the tampering has occurred.”20

Although this system looks promising, it will likely not be available for the 2020 general election. It was recently tested in local schoolboard election in Fulton, Wisconsin a town with about 500 registered voters.21 But Microsoft wants to make sure that it has worked out the kinks before a wide rollout, likely to avoid a mishap similar to that which occurred during the Iowa caucuses.22

The Microsoft ElectionGuard system will help address one area of concern in election security—voting machines—but additional vulnerabilities are still lurking. DDoS23 and ransomware24 attacks on voter registration databases are of major concern.25 This information is critical for election officials to conduct elections. These types of attacks allow interference without any vote tampering simply by making it difficult for people to vote, tainting the results.26 There is evidence that this was an strategy used Russian hackers during the 2016 election cycle.27 These databases are more vulnerable than voting machines because they are often Internet-connected.28 There is no perfect technology fix to these issues. The expert’s best advice on how to fight against such attack: a good old-fashioned paper backup.

  1. Jack Gillum, Some Election-Related Websites Still Run on Vulnerable Software Older Than Many High Schoolers, ProPublica (Mar. 3, 2020), https://www.propublica.org/article/some-election-related-websites-still-run-on-vulnerable-software-older-than-many-high-schoolers [https://perma.cc/73QQ-SRCG].

  2. Id.

  3. Id.

  4. Id.

  5. Kim Zetter, Los Angeles County’s risky voting experiment, Politico (Mar. 3. 2020), https://www.politico.com/news/2020/03/03/los-angeles-county-voting-experiment-119157 [https://perma.cc/4D4J-8M78].

  6. Fahmida Y. Rashid, Election Security Experts Cautiously Optimistic About New Voting Machines in Los Angeles, IEEE Spectrum (Mar. 3, 2020), https://spectrum.ieee.org/tech-talk/computing/hardware/election-security-experts-new-voting-machines-los-angeles-super-tuesday-news.

  7. Zetter, supra footnote 4.

  8. Id.

  9. Id.

  10. Id.

  11. Marrian Zhou, New bill would require paper ballots to secure election results, CNET (Aug. 21, 2018), https://www.cnet.com/news/new-bill-would-require-paper-ballots-to-secure-election-results/ [https://perma.cc/2NDN-3JGH].

  12. Adrian Sanz, Federal judge dismisses voting security lawsuit in Tennessee, Associated Press (Sept. 13, 2019), https://apnews.com/f278baa90c384e88bad0b8dd4cfaac44.

  13. Alfred Ng, This could be Microsoft’s most important product in 2020. If it works, CNET (Feb. 18, 2020), https://www.cnet.com/features/this-could-be-microsofts-most-important-product-in-2020-if-it-works/ [https://perma.cc/X7MA-H5UU].

  14. Id.

  15. Id.

  16. Id.

  17. Id.

  18. Id.

  19. Id.

  20. Miles Parks, Ahead Of 2020, Microsoft Unveils Tool To Allow Voters To Track Their Ballots, NPR (May 6, 2019), https://www.npr.org/2019/05/06/720071488/ahead-of-2020-microsoft-unveils-tool-to-allow-voters-to-track-their-ballots [https://perma.cc/MV97-FXXL].

  21. Ng, supra footnote 13.

  22. Miles Parks, Iowa Caucus Meltdown Proved Transparency Is Essential, Election-Watchers Say, NPR (Feb. 12, 2020), https://www.npr.org/2020/02/13/804491974/iowa-caucus-meltdown-proved-transparency-is-essential-election-watchers-say [https://perma.cc/N8CR-XWQ8].

  23. A Distributed Denial of Service (“DDoS”) is a malicious network attack that involves hackers forcing numerous Internet-connected devices to send network communication requests to one specific service or website with the intention of overwhelming it with false traffic or requests. Malwarebytes, https://www.malwarebytes.com/ddos/ (last visited, Mar. 5, 2020). [https://perma.cc/9TEB-FVE6].

  24. Ransomware is a type of malware that threatens to publish or perpetually block access the victim’s data unless a ransom is paid. Malwarebytes, https://www.malwarebytes.com/ransomware/ (last visited, Mar. 5, 2020). [https://perma.cc/PB8V-ZMAC].

  25. Max Eddy, 2020 Election Security: What the Experts Are Saying About Ransomware, Paper Ballots, More, PC Mag (Feb. 29, 2020), https://www.pcmag.com/news/2020-election-security-what-the-experts-are-saying-about-ransomware-paper [https://perma.cc/23R5-58HU].

  26. Alfred Ng & Shelby Brown, Two Florida counties were hacked in 2016 election, says Gov. DeSantis, CNET (May 14, 2019), https://www.cnet.com/news/two-florida-counties-were-hacked-in-2016-election-says-gov-desantis/ [https://perma.cc/JK7P-ZMV4].

  27. Chloe Albanesius & Michael Kan, 12 Russians Indicted for DNC Hack, Stealing Voter Info, PC Mag (Jul. 13, 2018), https://www.pcmag.com/news/12-russians-indicted-for-dnc-hack-stealing-voter-info [https://perma.cc/8FZ4-GGGG]; Ng & Brown, supra footnote 26.

  28. Eddy, supra footnote 25.

Dylan McGowan

Dylan McGowan is a second-year J.D. candidate at Fordham University School of Law and a staff member of the Intellectual Property, Media & Entertainment Law Journal. He is also the Vice President of the Irish Law Students Association, and a member of the Fordham Moot Court Board. He holds a B.A. in Government & Politics from the University of Maryland – College Park.