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  • Mike J. Walker

Episode 43: Protecting Our Elections with Emerging Tech

In this episode, I'm excited to be speaking with Dr. Josh Benaloh, Senior Principal Cryptographer at Microsoft Research. If you have ever wondered why we still don’t hold our elections online, how we can combat interference in our elections, or how advanced cryptography can be used to create an end-to-end verifiable election systems, this is the episode for you! Josh walks us through why Microsoft has been working with governments, NGOs, academics and industry on the Defending Democracy Program. Within this program Josh focuses on ElectionGuard, a Microsoft developed, open source SDK that uses encryption to dramatically improve election integrity today and perhaps move us toward wide-scale online voting in the future. We’ll also explore the fascinating history of elections, the trade-offs among privacy, and why blockchain may not be the best fit for election systems.

Watch on the V-Next YouTube Channel

Listen to the V-Next Podcast

Inside the Episode

00:00 - Intro


Every election year, millions of Americans are eligible to cast their ballots to elect officials ranging from members of school boards to the President of the United States. Those millions of voters need to be confident that the democratic process is carried out without interference.

However, in recent years, technology designed to help elections run smoothly has been targeted by those seeking to influence, subvert or sabotage democracy.

There is overwhelming evidence that attempts have been made to target digital election infrastructure. For example, during the 2016 U.S. presidential election, actors sponsored by the Russian state infiltrated voter registration databases as part of a wider campaign of election interference. Fortunately, there is no evidence of any successful tampering with actual votes.

However, vote casting and tabulation systems are extremely vulnerable. “The challenge is asymmetric. In the U.S., elections are run locally – mostly by counties, sometimes even by townships – yet the attackers can be nation states. It’s simply not reasonable to expect a small county government can withstand an attack from a nation-state attacker.”

Additional factors include, New USPS data appears to show a failure to deliver mail ballots from voters across the country on Election Day. U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan will hold a noon hearing over USPS' non-compliance with his order yesterday to rush deliver all remaining mail ballots

That’s why Microsoft has been working with governments, NGOs, academics and industry on the Defending Democracy Program. One of the key components is ElectionGuard.

Defending Democracy Program

The Defending Democracy Program will work with stakeholders including governments, non-government organizations, academics and industry all in democratic countries globally to protect campaigns from hacking; increase political advertising transparency online; explore technological solutions to preserve and protect electoral processes; and defend against disinformation campaigns.

The Defending Democracy Program will work with all stakeholders in democratic countries globally to:

  • Protect campaigns from hacking through increased cyber resilience measures, enhanced account monitoring and incident response capabilities;

  • Increase political advertising transparency online by supporting relevant legislative proposals such as the Honest Ads Act and adopting additional self-regulatory measures across our platforms;

  • Explore technological solutions to preserve and protect electoral processes and engage with federal, state and local officials to identify and remediate cyber threats; and

  • Defend against disinformation campaigns in partnership with leading academic institutions and think tanks dedicated to countering state-sponsored computational propaganda and junk news.

About ElectionGuard

In May, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella announced ElectionGuard, a free open-source software development kit (SDK) from our Defending Democracy Program. ElectionGuard is accessible by design and will make voting more secure, verifiable and efficient anywhere it’s used in the United States or in democratic nations around the world. Today we’re announcing that ElectionGuard is now available on GitHub so that major election technology suppliers can begin integrating ElectionGuard into their voting systems.

The ElectionGuard resources available on GitHub today extend across four GitHub repositories, or storage spaces, each described below.

ElectionGuard specification. The ElectionGuard specification includes both “informal” and “formal” road maps for how ElectionGuard works. The informal spec is authored by Dr. Josh Benaloh of Microsoft Research and provides the conceptual and mathematical basis for end-to-end verifiable elections with ElectionGuard. The formal spec contains detailed guidance manufacturers will need to incorporate ElectionGuard into their systems, including a full description of the API – which is the way voting systems communicate with the ElectionGuard software – and the stages of an end-to-end verifiable election.

Software code. This repository contains the actual source code vendors will use to build their ElectionGuard implementations. It is written in C, a standard language commonly used by open-source software developers and includes a buildable version of the API. This documentation is also viewable here. This code was built together with our development partner Galois.

Reference verifier and specification. As we announced in May, ElectionGuard enables government entities, news organizations, human rights organizations, or anyone else to build additional verifiers that independently can certify election results have been accurately counted and have not been altered. The resources available on GitHub today include a working verifier as well as the specifications necessary to build your own independent verifier.

Ballot marking device reference implementation. Voting system manufacturers will be free to build ElectionGuard into their systems in a variety of ways. At the Aspen Security Forum in July, we demonstrated a sample voting system, built with the help of industrial designer Tucker Viemeister, that we believe showcased a great way the features enabled by ElectionGuard can be used in voting systems. The ballot marking device we demonstrated included accessibility features built under the guidance of the Center for Civic Design, authors of the original “Anywhere Ballot,” and incorporated the Xbox Adaptive Controller as an optional device to mark ballots. The ballot marking device open source repository released today includes a variety of tools and visuals necessary to build or augment real-world election systems using the best of ElectionGuard.

These are exciting steps that enable individual voters to confirm their vote was properly counted, and assures those voters using an ElectionGuard system of the most secure and trustworthy vote in the history of the U.S. As we’ve previously announced, all major manufacturers of voting systems in the United States are working with us to explore ways to incorporate ElectionGuard into their systems including Clear Ballot, Democracy Live, Election Systems & Software, Dominion Voting Systems, Hart InterCivic, BPro, MicroVote, Smartmatic and VotingWorks. We’ve worked deeply with many of these companies over the summer to prepare them for today’s SDK release.

About Dr. Josh Benaloh

Josh Benaloh is Senior Cryptographer at Microsoft Research, an Affiliate Faculty Member of the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Washington, and spent 17 years on the Board of Directors of the International Association for Cryptologic Research. He earned his S.B. degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and M.S., M.Phil., and Ph.D. degrees from Yale University where his 1987 doctoral dissertation, Verifiable Secret-Ballot Elections, introduced the use of homomorphic encryption to enable end-to-end verifiable election technologies.

Dr. Benaloh’s numerous research publications in cryptography and voting have pioneered new technologies including the “cast or spoil” paradigm that brings voters into the election verification process with minimal burden.

He has served on the program committees of dozens of cryptography and election-related conferences and workshops and is a frequent speaker on the history, development, and mechanisms behind verifiable voting.  He also served on the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine Committee on the Future of Voting — whose 2018 report Securing the Vote — Protecting American Democracy — has been widely cited in both academic literature and public deliberations.

Among other side interests, Dr. Benaloh recently completed two years as chair of the Citizen Oversight Panel for the Seattle region’s Sound Transit agency that is currently investing about $1 billion per annum in improving the region’s mass transit infrastructure. He has also authored numerous puzzles used in a variety of Seattle-area puzzle competitions.

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