College Park elections use new verification technology
BY ROBERT STEWART
For College Park residents who voted in-person during the 2023 election, the process should have seemed relatively similar to any previous year, with a few exceptions.
For one, the paper ballot had boxes instead of ovals this year.
Also, each voter received a paper confirmation after scanning in and confirming their ballot.
That second change may seem ordinary, but it’s the result of more than a decade of research into a two-fold challenge: how to let voters confirm that their votes have been counted, while keeping their votes private.
A voter can now go to a website, scan or enter a code from the confirmation they received after they voted and verify that the vote was counted.
“Think of it as like FedEx saying your package has arrived,” said Robert “RC” Carter, head of the ElectionGuard program, during an information session hosted by the city on Sept. 27.
The printed confirmation does not allow voters to check how they voted, just whether they were included in the vote tally, according to an ElectionGuard fact sheet posted on the city’s website.
Election officials have implemented the technology in only two other elections: one in Fulton County, Wisconsin (2020), and most recently in Preston, Idaho (2022). Both elections were on a smaller scale than College Park’s, according to Carter. The company’s participation in College Park’s election is an opportunity for them to test a technology, on a larger scale, that Carter says can give voters confidence that the system is working as intended.
Benjamin Hovland, a member of the College Park Board of Elections Supervisors, was an independent observer of the 2022 election in Idaho, and connected Carter with College Park, according to Carter. Hovland serves as one of the four federally appointed commissioners to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.
The new process involves collaboration among the City of College Park and a number of other partners, including the voting machine vendor, the Council of State Governments and Microsoft.
ElectionGuard software, developed by Microsoft, runs on the voting machine scanners. The software helps generate paper confirmations, encrypts individual votes and provides an encrypted public record of the vote, according to Carter. This means voters have a document they can use to verify that their vote was counted in the final tally, and interested parties can download the election record and run software to inspect it and verify its accuracy.
“Our purpose in doing this,” Carter said, “is to give people a public copy that they can interrogate with the intention of increasing confidence and participation in the election outcomes.”
The ElectionGuard technology has evolved from decades of work by Microsoft senior cryptographer Josh Benaloh. According to Microsoft, the company ramped up the development of the technology following attacks by Russia on the 2016 election cycle. In 2019, Microsoft announced their intention to launch ElectionGuard, which was part of the company’s Democracy Forward Initiative until this summer.
The Council of State Governments, a national, nonpartisan organization, announced in July 2023 that it was launching the Election Technology Initiative (ETI) and that the ElectionGuard software program will be transitioning to the ETI.
Hart InterCivic, a key partner in the project, is the third largest vendor of voting equipment in the United States. Hart InterCivic has officially partnered with ElectionGuard since 2021. They put ElectionGuard technology on their scanners for the city’s elections and leased voting machines to College Park.
Hart InterCivic’s voting systems had two drives installed for College Park’s 2023 election, According to Pam Geppert, vice president of product at Hart InterCivic. “So, what you have is two parallel tabulation processes,” she explained during the information meeting. Hart InterCivic tabulates the votes for the official result on one drive, and the ElectionGuard software, stored on a separate drive, allows the votes to be verified.
“We had the opportunity because of this partnership to work with Hart InterCivic and have excellent election tabulation software and hardware available to us that we otherwise would not have access to,” said Janeen Miller, College Park city clerk, in an interview. Miller, who spoke about the city’s challenges finding good election vendors during a meeting at city hall in July, described the collaboration with Hart InterCivic and ElectionGuard as a win-win.
The Center for Civic Design (CCD), a nonprofit research organization based in Cambridge, Maryland, is also involved. CCD is surveying and interviewing voters to gain insight on the voting experience, according to Miller.
The feedback obtained by CCD will help the ElectionGuard program tweak aspects of user experience, according to Carter, as ElectionGuard rolls out new features planned for 2023.
Miller said she is also interested in hearing how voters respond, and believes the CCD survey may yield results that can help the city improve voter turnout.
The City of College Park is asking residents to complete a short survey on the recent election, whether they voted or not. The survey is open until the end of the month at this link: https://surveys.