A person votes using with a machine that draws on Microsoft’s ElectionGuard software in Fulton, Wisconsin, on February 18, 2020.
People in the Wisconsin town of Fulton are the first to try out software Microsoft designed to confirm that votes are being properly counted. On Tuesday, Fulton residents are using the technology while choosing who will join the local school board and hold a seat on Wisconsin’s state supreme court.
Microsoft’s ElectionGuard software can count votes electronically while providing a separate means for voters to confirm that their votes are included in tallies. Votes themselves are encrypted using a technique developed by Microsoft Research, so that nobody can see how an individual voted. After a person votes, a printer next to the voting device generates a piece of paper, which the voter can view to make sure the votes were recorded properly, and then drop into the ballot box. The paper also shows an online location that voters can look at later to make sure their vote was counted, although this web site doesn’t show who they voted for.
The ElectionGuard technology won’t be responsible for tallying votes in the Wisconsin primary election. Election officials will still count paper votes, although it is possible to rely on the software’s digital counts and then fall back to the paper ballots for verification.
ElectionGuard won’t be material to Microsoft’s business, since it’s free to use, and the company has no intention of entering the voting-hardware market. It’s simply meant to help restore people’s faith in voting, and if it works, it could make Microsoft look like it’s helping with the democratic process. That would be in contrast to companies like Facebook and Twitter that have seen their technology used for political aims in ways they hadn’t intended.
As a first step, Microsoft worked with state, county and town election officials and non-profit voting machine company VotingWorks to embed ElectionGuard into voting devices that people are using in Fulton, which has a population of 3,257.
A voting machine that uses Microsoft ElectionGuard software.
The small test market is simply meant to give Microsoft feedback. The company wants to see if voters like the experience and make sure everything works as it should.
Microsoft is eager to get the technology more widely adopted, if not in time for the 2020 presidential elections, then maybe in time for the midterm elections in 2022.
“The response from all three principal vendors [of voting devices] has been positive, and we’re working with all of them,” Tom Burt, corporate vice president for customer security and trust at Microsoft, said in a media briefing at company headquarters in Redmond, Washington, last week.
Microsoft has even received interest in ElectionGuard from outside the U.S., including from a developer in Europe who’s interested the technology for city elections, Burt said.
“We may see this tech incorporate in nationwide or very large elections outside the United States even before it’s incorporated inside the United States,” he said.