TOWN OF FULTON – For clerk-treasurer Connie Zimmerman, there was nothing sleepy about Tuesday’s spring primary.
Her town hall was filled with high-tech gurus, poll workers, voters and a bunch of members of the media.
They were all there for a pilot test of new voting technology.
“You know, anything that can make your job easier, and not lose the integrity of the elections, is my idea of wonderful,” Zimmerman said.
In an age of international hackers and rising concern about election security, a lot of people are searching for a silver bullet in voting technology.
Voters in the Town of Fulton, which is 8 miles north of Janesville in Rock County, gave Microsoft’s ElectionGuard software a tryout.
ElectionGuard enables voters to verify that their ballot was counted through generating a ballot tracking code.
The software also provides encrypted results.
VotingWorks, a nonprofit voting software company, supplied the voting equipment, which consisted of card readers, tablets, ballot marking devices and printers.
The process appeared seamless. After checking in, voters received a key card to insert into a tablet.
They then selected candidates on a touch screen. They printed the ballot and placed it in the ballot box.
They received a second printed piece of paper that provided a tracking code that they could use later to verify that their vote was counted, by logging into a Microsoft website. The verification system does not allow the voter, or anyone else for that matter, to see who they voted for.
Although it was the first time the software was used in an election, this was just a test. All of the paper ballots voters cast were to be hand-counted by local election officials.
Microsoft and VotingWorks staff were prepared to tally the vote electronically so they could compare it to the official hand count.
So, why go through all the steps?
Last summer, the Wisconsin Elections Commission approved working with Microsoft on the test.
Meagan Wolfe, the commission’s administrator, said in a statement that she was eager to see the technology used by real voters.
“We hope this pilot test will give us further insights into how the system works and whether voters like it,” she said. “We can use this data as we try to make elections in Wisconsin even more secure, usable and accessible.”
The Town of Fulton was just the right size for the pilot, providing several hundred voters for data.
Tom Burt, Microsoft’s corporate vice president for customer security and trust, helps oversee Microsoft’s Defending Democracy Program that was started in 2018. The program is based on three pillars: protecting campaigns from being hacked, combating disinformation and securing the voting process.
ElectionGuard is open-source software, meaning it can be used by any voting equipment maker. Burt said it will make the vote more secure. He said it can be used with various voting systems.
“The way I describe this technology compared to the existing technology is, we’ve taken the vote and we’ve put it in a high-quality safe,” Burt said. “And then we wrapped that with a tamper-proof seal. So, it’s hard to break into the safe but it’s not impossible. But if you do, we’re going to know and then it can get fixed.”
Burt said “we’ve done a lot of work to make sure that the code itself is secure. We feel really good about the code base. But we need to have the technology broadly accepted.”
He said there needs to be demand from voting officials and also vendors to incorporate the technology.
Burt said he hopes to have the technology “broadly disseminated in time for the midterms in 2022,” but quickly adds, “that’s going to be challenging.”
The idea is to build a system that is safe, secure and trusted by voters.
So, how did voters accept this test?
Meet Chris and Harry Sommerville, a retired married couple.
“I like it, it’s easier,” Chris said. “And I’m old. I’m 69.”
Harry, a tad older at 73, wasn’t impressed by the new voting technology.
“I thought it’s too many steps,” he said. “Why not mark the ballot and put it in the box? If this was a presidential election, we’d be waiting in a line out the door to vote.”
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