The next frontier in elections: Microsoft supports the Council of State Governments’ Election Technology Initiative

Earlier this week, the Council of State Governments (CSG) announced the formation of a new Election Technology Initiative (ETI), of which Microsoft’s ElectionGuard will be its first project. This is an exciting inflection point for ElectionGuard, an effort that Microsoft has been developing and investing in for over five years. As it transitions to its new custodian, we reflect on how this technology came to be, why we think it is time for this next phase, and how we intend to continue to support its deployment.

The aftermath of an attack

Following attacks on U.S. electoral infrastructure by Russia in the 2016 election cycle, there was a rush of government, civil society, and private-sector activity aimed at protecting democratic institutions and the people who depend on them from future nation-state attacks. One idea that gained momentum at this time was a concept called “end-to-end verifiable elections”, or “E2E-V.”

E2E-V is a process by which election officials, third-party monitors, and the voting public can independently verify the results of an election without giving up the right to a secret ballot. At a time when concern about foreign government manipulation in elections was high, additional reassurance that an election was secure and accurate was especially appealing. E2E-V, a concept advanced by Microsoft Research cryptographer Josh Benaloh, had been circulating in academic circles for years with limited trials in the field, as the election industry did not have the research and development programs in place to build something that could be implemented in a meaningful way.

In early 2019, Microsoft announced our intention to build a commercially viable open-source E2E-V solution: ElectionGuard. The aim of the project was to enable end-to-end verification of elections, open results to third-party organizations for secure validation, and allow individual voters to confirm their votes were correctly counted.

Testing technology and a theory

Following initial development, we set to work to test both the technology and the theory behind it. Was the election sector open to trying something new? Would the process increase voter trust? We had our first opportunity to answer these questions when, together with our non-profit partners at VotingWorks, we piloted the technology in an election in Fulton County, Wisconsin, on February 18, 2020.

After a successful pilot, armed with lessons learned, and in the midst of a pandemic and highly contested presidential election, we built a community of non-partisan partners dedicated to bringing ElectionGuard to voters around the country, including MITRE, Center for Civic Design, and Enhanced Voting. We also partnered with Hart Intercivic, a leading provider of U.S. election technology, to integrate ElectionGuard into their Verity Voting Systems. This group joined together to once again test the technology and the theory, with a successful election in Franklin County, Idaho during the 2022 U.S. midterm elections.

We followed that election with a collaborative report to the Election Assistance Commission (EAC) explaining what it takes to hold an E2E-V election and why the EAC should continue to pursue an E2E-V certification standard, as outlined in their latest Voluntary Voter Guidelines (VVSG 2.0).

Next steps

It has been a privilege to shepherd this technology with our partners over the past five years as we aim to make elections more transparent, accessible, and trustworthy. Having proven that the technology works, the theory holds up, and that voters are seeking trusted election experiences more than ever, now is the right time to transition ElectionGuard to the election community.

At a time of increased uncertainty around the election process, open-source solutions like ElectionGuard are crucial to providing voters with more information, transparency, and options. Ensuring that solutions are built to meet the needs of voters requires partner collaborations. Organizations like the Council of State Governments and The Turnout, whose teams are made up of experienced election experts who intimately understand the election environment, are well positioned to be the standard bearers for the type of next-gen technology that’s needed in today’s election environment.

Though no longer the primary custodian of ElectionGuard’s development, Microsoft will continue to support this important work, both with expertise and technical contributions from Microsoft Research as well as financial support that will be needed to continue ElectionGuard’s growth and further deployment.

Election Technology Initiative

The Election Technology Initiative, under CSG and the Turnout, will focus on evolving and maintaining open-source technologies of value to the election community. This effort will begin with incorporating ElectionGuard, and continue with developing and enhancing the tool under the Election Technology Initiative. The initiative will continue to test the technology through pilot elections, the next of which will be held in College Park, Maryland, in November 2023.

As part of the establishment of the Election Technology Initiative, CSG will partner with its long-time collaborator in the election space, The Turnout, to support and develop technologies for election administrators that help improve confidence, participation, transparency, accessibility, and security in the election process.

The Council of State Governments is America’s largest organization of state officials and the nation’s only nonpartisan, not-for-profit organization serving all three branches of state government. Founded in 1933, CSG is a region-based forum that fosters the exchange of insights and ideas to help state officials shape public policy to help communities across the nation and advance the common good. Similarly, The Turnout works to help governments better understand and assess military and overseas voting, to perform security self-assessments and upgrade their cybersecurity, to visualize and analyze their processes, and to standardize and validate their elections data.

A team effort

The ElectionGuard project is a team effort, and we are grateful to the many partners who have accompanied us on this journey. In particular, we would like to extend special thanks to the following:

  • VotingWorks who integrated ElectionGuard software into their systems for the 2020 election in Fulton, Wisconsin.
  • Hart InterCivic, who integrated ElectionGuard software into their Verity® scanner for the 2022 Midterm Election in Franklin County, Idaho. Hart is the first major voting system manufacturer in the United States to provide independent verifiability.
  • InfernoRed, a premier independent software company that developed the open-source ElectionGuard SDK.
  • The MITRE National Election Security Lab, who built a publicly available, independent verifier for ElectionGuard and verified the election results of the 2022 Franklin County Midterm elections.
  • Enhanced Voting, who built the public website where voters checked their confirmation codes and hosted the ElectionGuard data package for the Idaho pilot.
  • Center for Civic Design, who brought their design, research, and communication skills to collecting feedback from voters during the pilot election in 2022.

We look forward to continuing to work with these and other partners as ElectionGuard moves into this new phase.


Tags: , , ,