How open supply voting machines may enhance belief in US elections

Whereas the distributors pitched their newest voting machines in Harmony, New Hampshire, this previous August, the election officers within the room g­­asped. They whispered, “No method.” They nodded their heads and crammed out the scorecards of their laps. Interrupting in the event that they needed to, they requested each sort of query: How a lot does the brand new scanner weigh? Are any of its elements made in China? Does it use the JSON information format?

The solutions weren’t trivial. Primarily based partially on these displays, many can be making a once-in-a-decade choice.

These New Hampshire officers at the moment use AccuVote machines, which have been made by an organization that’s now a part of Dominion Voting Techniques. First launched in 1989, they run on an working system not supported by Microsoft, and a few have suffered excessive malfunctions; in 2022, the identical mannequin of AccuVote partially melted throughout an particularly heat summer season election in Connecticut.

Many cities in New Hampshire need to substitute the AccuVote. However with what? Primarily based on previous historical past, the brand new machines would probably need to final many years — whereas additionally being safe sufficient to fulfill the state’s election skeptics. Exterior the occasion, these skeptics held indicators like “Ban Voting Machines.” Although they have been comparatively small in quantity that day, they’re a part of a nationwide motion to remove voting know-how and as an alternative hand depend each poll — an possibility election directors say is just not possible.

In opposition to this backdrop, greater than 130 election officers packed into the convention rooms on the second ground of Harmony’s Legislative Workplace Constructing. In the end, they confronted a selection between two radically totally different futures.

The primary was to proceed with a legacy vendor. Three corporations — Dominion, ES&S, and Hart InterCivic — management roughly 90 % of the U.S. voting know-how market. All three are privately held, which means they’re required to disclose little about their monetary workings and so they’re additionally dedicated to conserving their supply code from turning into absolutely public.

The second future was to gamble on VotingWorks, a nonprofit with solely 17 staff and voting machine contracts in simply 5 small counties, all in Mississippi. The corporate has taken the other method to the Large Three. Its monetary statements are posted on its web site, and each line of code powering its machines is printed on GitHub, obtainable for anybody to examine.

“Why in 2023 are we counting votes with any proprietary software program in any respect?”

On the Harmony occasion, a consultant for ES&S urged that this open-source method may very well be harmful. “If the FBI was constructing a brand new constructing, they’re not going to place the blueprints out on-line,” he stated. However VotingWorks co-founder Ben Adida says it’s basic to rebuilding belief in voting tools and combatting the nationwide push handy depend ballots. “An open-source voting system is one the place there aren’t any secrets and techniques about how this works,” Adida advised the viewers. “All of the supply code is public for the world to see, as a result of why in 2023 are we counting votes with any proprietary software program in any respect?”

Others agree. Ten states at the moment use VotingWorks’ open-source audit software program, together with Georgia throughout its hand depend audit in 2020. Different teams are exploring open-source voting know-how, together with Microsoft, which just lately piloted voting software program in Franklin County, Idaho. Payments requiring or permitting for open-source voting know-how have just lately been launched in at the very least six states; a invoice has additionally been launched on the federal stage to review the difficulty additional. In New Hampshire, the concept has help from election officers, the secretary of state, and even diehard machine skeptics.

VotingWorks is on the forefront of the motion to make elections extra clear. “Though the voting tools that we’ve been utilizing for the final 20, 30 years is just not chargeable for this disaster,” Adida stated, “it’s additionally not the tools that’s going to get us out of this disaster.” However can an idealist nonprofit actually unseat business juggernauts — and restore religion in democracy alongside the best way?

For years, officers have feared that America’s voting machines are susceptible to assault. Throughout the 2016 election, Russian hackers focused election programs in all 50 states, in keeping with the Senate Intelligence Committee. The committee discovered no proof that any votes have been modified, but it surely did recommend that Russia may very well be cataloging choices “to be used at a later date.”

In 2017, the Division of Homeland Safety designated election infrastructure as “vital infrastructure,” noting that “dangerous cyber actors — starting from nation states, cyber criminals, and hacktivists — have gotten extra refined and harmful.”

Some conservative activists have urged merely avoiding machines altogether and hand-counting ballots. However doing so is prohibitively gradual and costly, to not point out extra error-prone. Final yr, for instance, one county in Arizona estimated that counting all 105,000 ballots from the 2020 election would require at the very least 245 folks working day-after-day, together with holidays, for nearly three weeks.

That leaves election directors depending on machines to tally up votes. That August day in Harmony, VotingWorks and two of the legacy distributors, Dominion and ES&S, have been providing the identical sort of product: an optical scanner, which is basically only a counting machine. After a New Hampshire voter fills in a paper poll by hand, it’s probably inserted into an optical scanner, which interprets and tallies the marks. This course of is how roughly two-thirds of the nation votes. 1 / 4 of voters mark their ballots utilizing machines (aptly named “ballot-marking units”), that are then fed into an optical scanner as effectively. About 5 % use direct recording digital programs, or DREs, which permits votes to be solid and saved immediately on the machine. Solely 0.2 % of voters have their ballots counted by hand.

close up view of hands counting stacks of ballots
Employees in Hinsdale, New Hampshire depend every of the 1799 ballots solid after the polls closed on election day in 2016. Hand counts of ballots are prohibitively gradual and costly, and fewer correct than machines.

For the reason that 2020 election, the businesses that make these machines have been the topic of intense scrutiny from individuals who deny the election outcomes. These corporations have additionally come underneath fireplace for what critics on either side of the political aisle describe as their secrecy, lack of innovation, and obstructionist tendencies.

Not one of the three corporations publicly disclose primary info, together with their buyers and their monetary well being. It can be troublesome to even get the costs of their machines. Usually, jurisdictions come to rely on these corporations. Two-thirds of the business’s income comes from help, upkeep, and providers for the machines.

Legacy distributors additionally combat to take care of their market share. In 2017, Hart InterCivic sued Texas to forestall counties from changing its machines, which don’t produce a paper path, with machines that did. “For a vendor to sue to forestall auditable paper data from being utilized in voting exhibits that market dynamics will be starkly misaligned with the general public curiosity,” concluded a report by researchers on the College of Pennsylvania in collaboration with Verified Voting, a nonprofit that, in keeping with its mission assertion, works to advertise “the accountable use of know-how in elections.”

The businesses inform a special story, mentioning that they do disclose their code to sure entities, together with third-party corporations and unbiased labs that work on behalf of the federal authorities to check for vulnerabilities within the software program that may very well be exploited by hackers. In a press release to Undark, ES&S additionally stated it discloses sure monetary info to jurisdictions “when requested” and the corporate shared approximate costs for its voting machines, though it famous that ultimate pricing relies on “particular person buyer necessities.”

In Harmony, officers from some small cities the place ballots are nonetheless hand-counted have been contemplating switching to machines. Others have been contemplating whether or not to stay with Dominion and LHS — the New Hampshire-based firm that providers the machines — or change to VotingWorks. It will probably be some of the costly, consequential choices of their careers.

“For a vendor to sue to forestall auditable paper data from being utilized in voting exhibits that market dynamics will be starkly misaligned with the general public curiosity.”

All through his pitch, the consultant for LHS emphasised the continuity between the previous AccuVote machines and the brand new Dominion scanner. Sporting a blazer and a gown shirt unbuttoned on the collar, Jeff Silvestro knew the gang effectively. LHS is the one approved service supplier for the complete state’s AccuVote machines, and it’s chargeable for providing coaching for the cities’ employees, delivering reminiscence playing cards for every election, and weathering a blizzard to come back to their ballot web site and repair a damaged scanner.

Don’t fear, Silvestro reassured the gang: The voter expertise is similar. “Similarities,” Silvestro advised the gang. “That’s what we’re on the lookout for.”

Simply down the corridor from Silvestro, Ben Adida laid out a special imaginative and prescient of what voting know-how may very well be. He opened by addressing the “elephant within the room”: the substantial quantity of people that mistrust the elections. VotingWorks may accomplish that, he stated, by providing three issues: safety, simplicity, and transparency.

Adida first began engaged on election know-how in 1997, as a pc science undergraduate at MIT, the place he constructed a voting system for scholar council elections. After incomes a Ph.D. from MIT in 2006, with a specialty in cryptography and data safety, he did a couple of extra years of election work as a post-doc at Harvard College after which transitioned to information safety and privateness for medical information. Later, he served as director of engineering at Mozilla and Sq. and vice chairman of engineering at Intelligent, a digital studying platform for Okay-12 faculties.

In 2016, Adida thought of leaving Intelligent to do election work once more, and he adopted the progress of STAR-Vote, an open-source election system proposed by Travis County, Texas, that in the end didn’t transfer ahead. He determined to remain put, however he couldn’t shake the considered voting know-how. Adida knew it was uncommon for somebody to have his background in each product design and election safety. “That is sort of a calling,” he stated.

Ben Adida
Ben Adida, who holds a Ph.D. in pc science, with a specialty in cryptography and data safety, is the co-founder of VotingWorks, a nonprofit that builds open-source election know-how.
a VotingWorks display of at the National Association of Secretaries of State in 2022 showing a voting screen built into a tamper-evident ballot box
The voting machine constructed by VotingWorks is created from off-the-shelf electronics and open-source software program that the corporate posted on GitHub.

Adida launched VotingWorks in December 2018, with some funding from people and Y Combinator, a famend startup accelerator. The nonprofit is now distinctive among the many legacy voting know-how distributors: The group has disclosed every part, from its donors to the costs of its machines. VotingWorks machines are created from off-the-shelf electronics, and within the long-run, in keeping with Adida, are cheaper than their rivals.

The day of the Harmony occasion, Adida wore a T-shirt tucked into his khakis, and sported a thick brown mustache. When he began discussing the specs of his machine, he spoke shortly, bounding across the room and even tripping on an errant wire. At one level, he confirmed off his machine’s end-of-night election report, printed on an eight ½ by 11 piece of paper, a far cry from the lengthy strips of paper which are at the moment used. You don’t need to have “these lengthy CVS receipts.” The room laughed.

Adida and his crew are staking out a place in a debate that stretches again to the early days of computing: Is the path to pc safety via secrecy, or via whole transparency?

Among the most generally used software program as we speak is open-source software program, or OSS, which means anybody can learn, modify, and reuse the code. OSS has powered in style merchandise just like the working system Linux and the web browser Firefox from Mozilla. It’s additionally used extensively by the Division of Protection.

Proponents of OSS supply three fundamental arguments for why it’s safer than a locked field mannequin. First, publicly obtainable supply code will be scrutinized by anybody, not only a comparatively small group of engineers inside an organization, growing the possibilities of catching flaws. Second, as a result of coders know that they are often scrutinized by anybody, they’re incentivized to provide higher work and to elucidate their method. “You may go and have a look at precisely why it’s being achieved this manner, who wrote it, who permitted it, and all of that,” stated Adida.

Third, OSS proponents say that attempting to cover supply code will in the end fail, as a result of attackers can purchase it from the provider or reverse engineer it themselves. Hackers don’t want good supply code, simply sufficient to research for patterns which will recommend a vulnerability. Breaking is less complicated than constructing.

Already, there are indications that dangerous actors have acquired proprietary voting machine code. In 2021, an election official in Colorado allegedly allowed a conspiracy theorist to entry county machines, copy delicate information, and {photograph} system passwords — the sort of insider assault that, specialists warn, may compromise the safety of the approaching presidential election.

Adida and his crew are staking out a place in a debate that stretches again to the early days of computing: Is the path to pc safety via secrecy, or via whole transparency?

Not everyone seems to be satisfied that open-source code alone is sufficient to guarantee a safe voting machine. “You can have had open-source software program, and also you won’t have discovered the entire issues or errors or points,” stated Pamela Smith, the president of Verified Voting, citing the quite a few strains of code that may should be examined in a restricted period of time.

Adida doesn’t count on anybody to undergo the a whole lot of 1000’s of strains of code on the VotingWorks GitHub. But when they’re interested by a selected facet, like how the scanner handles paper that’s askew, it’s far more manageable: just a few hundred strains of code. Already, a small variety of coders from outdoors the corporate have made options on tips on how to enhance the software program, a few of which have been accepted. Then, to completely guard in opposition to vulnerabilities, the corporate depends by itself procedures, third-party opinions, and certification testing on the federal stage, stated Adida.

two poll workers holding long scrolls of receipt paper which has puddled onto the ground
Miami-Dade election staff verify voting machines for accuracy by reviewing scrolls of paper that Adida likened to “lengthy CVS receipts.”

Along with safety, any new machine additionally must be simple for ballot staff to function — and in a position to carry out reliably underneath the high-stakes circumstances of an election day. In interviews, election officers who use the know-how in Mississippi raved about its ease of use.

Some additionally love how responsive the corporate is to suggestions. “They arrive to us and say, ‘Inform us within the discipline what’s happening,’” stated Sara Dionne, chairman of the election fee in Warren County, Mississippi, which began utilizing VotingWorks in 2020. “We definitely by no means had that sort of dialog with ES&S ever.”

To broaden VotingWorks’ attain, although, Adida should pitch it in locations like New Hampshire, the place election officers are navigating tight budgets, fallout from the 2020 election, and misperceptions about voting know-how.

New Hampshire is a swing state, and, after the 2020 election, it has a small however vocal faction of election deniers. On the similar time, Republican Secretary of State David Scanlan has achieved little to marshal sources for brand new machines. Final yr, Scanlan opposed a invoice that may have allowed New Hampshire cities and cities to use for funding from a $12 million federal grant for brand new voting machines; Republicans within the legislature killed the invoice. (Requested what cash-strapped jurisdictions ought to do if they will’t afford new scanners, Scanlan advised Undark they might cannibalize elements from previous AccuVote machines.)

Some critics additionally say Scanlan has achieved little to dispel some conservative activists’ beliefs that New Hampshire can dispense with machines altogether. On the Harmony occasion, a lady advised Undark that Manchester, a metropolis with 68,000 registered voters, may hand depend all of its ballots in simply 4 hours. Talking with Undark, Scanlan acknowledged that this estimate wasn’t appropriate, and that hand counting is much less correct than machines. Nevertheless, his workplace hasn’t communicated this message to the general public in any formal method. “I positively suppose that he’s complicit in permitting [misinformation] to proceed to flourish,” stated Liz Wester, co-founder of 603 Ahead, which inspires civic participation within the state.

The VotingWorks mannequin received over some machine skeptics on the Harmony occasion, like Tim Cahill, a Republican within the New Hampshire Home of Representatives. Cahill stated he’d choose that each one ballots within the state be hand counted however would select VotingWorks over the opposite distributors. “Why would you belief one thing you possibly can’t put your eyes on?” he advised Undark. “We have now a variety of sensible folks on this nation and other people need open supply, they need transparency.”

people in an office setting surrounded by stacks of ballots
Ballot staff use the Accu-Vote machines to scan absentee ballots in Fairbanks, Alaska.

Open supply has discovered followers in different states, too. Kevin Cavanaugh is a county supervisor in Pinal, Arizona’s third most populous county. He says he began to doubt voting machines after watching a documentary, funded by the election denier Mike Lindell, claiming that the units have unauthorized software program that might change vote totals with out detection. In November 2022, Cavanaugh launched a movement to extend the variety of ballots counted by hand within the county, and he advised Undark he’d like a full hand depend. “However, if we’re utilizing machines,” he added, “then I feel it’s essential that the supply code is out there for inspection to specialists.”

Again in Harmony, Adida gave the impression to be persuasive to the general public at giant — or at the very least these invested sufficient to attend the occasion. Of the 201 attendees who crammed out a scorecard, VotingWorks was the most well-liked first selection. However amongst election officers, the clear desire was Dominion. Some officers have been skeptical that open-source know-how would imply a lot to folks of their cities. “Your common voter doesn’t care about open supply,” stated one city clerk.

Nonetheless, 5 cities in New Hampshire have already bought VotingWorks machines, a few of which will likely be utilized in upcoming March native elections.

Two fundamental elements decide whether or not somebody has religion in an election, stated Charles Stewart III, a political scientist at MIT who has written extensively about belief in elections. The primary, which impacts roughly 5 to 10 % of voters, is a damaging private expertise on the polls, like lengthy strains, impolite ballot staff, and issues with machines, which might make the general public much less prepared to belief an election’s end result.

The second, extra influential issue affecting belief is that if a voter’s candidate received. That makes it supremely troublesome to revive confidence, stated Tammy Patrick, a former election official in Maricopa County and the present CEO for packages on the Nationwide Affiliation of Election Officers. “The reply on election administration — it’s advanced, it’s wonky, it’s not pithy,” she stated in a latest press convention. “It’s arduous to come back again to these emotional pleas with what the fact is.”

Adida agrees with Stewart that VotingWorks alone isn’t going to remove election denialism — nor, he stated, is that his objective. As an alternative, he hopes to succeed in the people who find themselves prone to misinformation however haven’t essentially made up their minds but, a bunch he describes because the “center 80 %.” Even when they by no means go to the corporate’s GitHub, he says, “the truth that we’re placing all of it out within the open builds belief.” And when somebody says one thing patently false in regards to the firm, Adida can at the very least ask them to establish the incriminating strains of supply code.

Are these two issues — rhetorical energy and a dedication to transparency — actually a match for the disinformation equipment pushing lies throughout the nation? Adida talked about the myths about legacy distributors’ machines being mis-programmed or incorrectly counting ballots through the 2020 election. “What was the counterpoint to that?” he requested. “It was, ‘Belief us. These machines have been examined.’ I need the counterpoint to be, ‘Hey of us, all of the supply code is open.’”

Spenser Mestel is a ballot employee and unbiased journalist. His bylines embody The New York Occasions, The Atlantic, The Guardian, and The Intercept.

This text was initially printed on Undark. Learn the unique article.

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