National push to bolster security of key election technology

An effort to create a national testing program for technology central to U

Christina A. Cassidy
Sunday 23 April 2023 12:55 BST

An effort to create a national testing program for technology central to U.S elections will be launched later this year, aiming to strengthen the security of equipment that has been targeted by foreign governments and provided fertile ground for conspiracy theories.

So far, states have been left on their own to evaluate the technology that provides the backbone of election operations: voter registration databases, websites used to report unofficial results on election night and electronic pollbooks, which are used instead of paper rolls to check in voters at polling places.

The nonprofit Center for Internet Security hopes to provide the nation's first uniform testing program for the technology, similar to one for voting machines. Its goal is to start the voluntary service in September as a way to help boost the security and reliability of the technology before the 2024 presidential election.

In 2020, 15 states, including Arizona, Florida and Nevada, did not require any type of electronic pollbook testing or certification, according to federal data.

“This is a critical need being filled at a critical time,” said Chris Wlaschin, senior vice president for Election Systems & Software, a leading voting machine manufacturer that also produces electronic pollbooks. “I think as more election officials learn about it, the more they’re going to ask for it.”

The use of electronic pollbooks in particular has expanded rapidly in recent years. Nearly one-third of all voting jurisdictions in the U.S. used electronic pollbooks in 2020, compared with about 18% four years earlier, according to data collected by federal Election Assistance Commission.

The systems bring unique security challenges. In many cases, they have internet connections or interact with systems that do. In counties with a vote center model, where registered voters can cast a ballot at any polling place, electronic pollbooks often communicate with each other and with the central voter registration system. That’s one way to ensure people are not able to vote at multiple locations or vote in-person after returning a mail ballot.

How much of an effect the new testing program will have on the 2024 presidential election is yet be determined. Much depends on how many technology providers sign up and how many state election offices will use it, but there appears to be wide interest.

One of the major benefits of this program is that it will provide a consistent process for certification for all of the different states that adopt it,” Jamie Remes with VR Systems, a provider of electronic pollbooks and election management systems, said during a recent event organized to discuss the testing program.

The South Carolina Election Commission, which has developed its own voter registration system, was among the offices participating in the center's testing pilot. Commission member Brian Leach said during the recent panel discussion that he saw one benefit of the program as helping “increase voter confidence in what we are doing."

Confidence in elections, particularly among Republicans, has decreased amid a sustained campaign by former President Donald Trump and his allies to discredit the results of the 2020 presidential election. There is no evidence of widespread fraud or manipulation of voting equipment in 2020, backed up by exhaustive reviews in states lost by Trump.

The center has not been immune to the assault on U.S. elections and has faced various claims related to its work. Online posts have sought to raise questions about its funding, purpose and the services it provides to state and local election offices.

The center receives a mix of federal and private money, and the pilot developed for its testing program got support from the Democracy Fund, which was started by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, a donor to Democratic campaigns and liberal causes. The testing program itself is funded solely by the center and eventually is to be supported entirely with fees paid by technology providers, according to the center.

Meanwhile, the federal commission is pursuing its own testing program for electronic pollbooks. Earlier this year, agency officials said they are making progress with their pilot program but that it was unlikely standards could be in place before the 2024 election.

As the use of electronic systems has grown, they have proved an attractive target for those seeking to meddle in U.S. elections.

In 2016, Russian hackers scanned state voter registration systems looking for vulnerabilities and accessed the voter registration database in Illinois, although an investigation later determined no voter data was manipulated. In 2020, Iranian hackers obtained confidential voter data and used it to send misleading emails, seeking to spread misinformation and influence the election.

Experts say the systems could be prime targets again for those seeking to disrupt voting and sow doubts about the security of elections. Gaining access to a voter registration database, for example, could allow someone to delete voters from the rolls. When people show up to vote, they would be told they are not on the list and forced to cast a provisional ballot.

In Detroit last November, a few polling locations had brief delays checking in voters related to a data error that was quickly identified and resolved. Trump seized on the early reports, calling the situation in Detroit “REALLY BAD” in a social media post and urging people to “Protest, Protest, Protest!”

Those involved said the center's testing program already has had an effect in boosting confidence in the systems.

“It’s not just about product testing," said Jared Dearing, the center’s senior director of election security and the former director of the Kentucky Board of Elections. "It’s increasing the security posture of the companies that are creating these products.”

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