ATLANTA– An attempt to create a national testing program for technology central to US elections will be launched later this year to increase the security of equipment targeted by foreign governments and provide fertile ground for conspiracy theories bot.
So far, states have been left alone to evaluate the technology that forms the backbone of election operations: voter registration databases, websites used to report unofficial results on election night, and electronic ballot books used in place of paper rolls to record the Check in voters at polling stations.
The nonprofit Center for Internet Security hopes to offer the nation’s first unified testing program for the technology, akin to voting machines. The aim is to start the voluntary service in September to help increase the safety 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 survey or certification, according to federal data.
“This is a critical need that must be met at a critical time,” said Chris Wlaschin, senior vice president for voting systems & Software, a leading manufacturer of voting machines that also produces electronic ballot books. “I think the more election officials find out about this, the more they’re going to ask about it.”
In particular, the use of electronic ballot books has increased significantly in recent years. Nearly a third of all U.S. electoral districts used electronic ballot books in 2020, up from about 18% four years earlier, according to data collected by the 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 polling center model, where registered voters can vote at any polling station, electronic ballot books often communicate with each other and with the central voter registration system. This ensures that people cannot vote in multiple locations or vote in person after returning an absentee ballot.
It is not yet clear how much the new test program will affect the 2024 presidential election. Much depends on how many technology vendors will sign up and how many provincial electoral offices will use them, but interest seems to be high.
“One of the key benefits of this program is that it provides a consistent certification process across all the different states that adopt it,” said Jamie Remes of VR Systems, a provider of electronic ballot books and election management systems, in a recent statement event organized to highlight the testing program to discuss.
The South Carolina Election Commission, which developed its own voter registration system, was among the bureaus participating in the center’s test pilot. Commissioner Brian Leach said during the recent panel discussion that he saw a benefit of the program in “increasing voter confidence in what we do”.
Confidence in the election, particularly among Republicans, has waned amid an ongoing 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 tampering with voting machines in 2020, backed by extensive reviews in states lost to Trump.
The center was not immune to the US election attack and faced various lawsuits related to its work. Posts online have attempted to raise questions about its funding, purpose, and the services it provides to state and local polling agencies.
The center receives a mix of government and private funding, and the pilot project developed for its testing program received support from the Democracy Fund, set up by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, a donor to democratic campaigns and liberal causes. The testing program itself is funded solely by the center and, according to the center, will eventually be supported entirely by fees from technology providers.
Meanwhile, the Federal Commission is pursuing its own test program for electronic election books. Earlier this year, agency officials said they were making progress with their pilot program, but said standards were unlikely to be rolled out before the 2024 election.
As the use of electronic systems has increased, they have proven to be an attractive target for those looking to meddle in US elections.
In 2016, Russian hackers scanned state voter registration systems for vulnerabilities and accessed the Illinois voter registration database, although an investigation later found no voter records had been tampered with. In 2020, Iranian hackers obtained sensitive voter data and used it to send deceptive emails to spread misinformation and influence the election.
Experts say the systems could again be prime targets for those wanting to disrupt voting and cast doubt on the security of elections. For example, access to a voter registration database could allow someone to remove voters from the registers. When people show up to vote, they are told they are not on the list and are forced to cast a provisional vote.
In Detroit last November, some polling stations experienced brief delays in verifying voters related to a data error that was quickly identified and fixed. 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!”
Stakeholders said the center’s testing program has already helped build confidence in the systems.
“It’s not just about product testing,” said Jared Dearing, the center’s senior director of election security and former director of the Kentucky Board of Elections. “It’s about improving the security posture of the companies that develop these products.”