Dana DeBeauvoir-Austin Election Official Works to Improve Election Security

Wired 09.15.2020 06:00 AM “Lonestar” “How a Texas county clerk set off the biggest, weirdest, and most promising REVOLUTION in American voting technology since the 1800s”. By Benjamin Wofford.

2244 like almost everyone is interested, one way or the other, in the current election season and in having a “hack-proof” reliable process. So this and being an Austinite, if only a transplanted one, having our Travis County Chief Clerk and Election Administrator featured in Wired made for a compelling read. Read the article for more detail.

Summary of Article

It is an interesting story ending with “We were a little ahead of our time” “That was our only mistake” says Dana DeBeauvoir (day buv WAH). It is surprisingly a tale full of all the issues faced in modern business with the business being elections; stakeholders, government regulations and officials, vendors-voting machine makers, information technology, analysts-high math and users-voters needing ease of use and trust. In the end, Dana and a team of expert’s effort ultimately, stoked by Bush V. Gore Year 2000, met Microsoft (MSFT) looking to help ensure elections after Russian meddling in 2016. They significantly moved-the-ball-forward towards more-secure digital elections but in time maybe for 2022 or 2024 but not 2020.

Dana DeBeauvoir. Image source twitter.com

After the Presidential Election of the year 2000, hanging chads in Bush V. Gore, Congress in 2002 appropriated billions to find secure digital solutions for voting. Some were created and Texas adopted a DRE or Direct-Recording-Electronic voting machine but it wasn’t long before cybersecurity experts in academia and business started pitted themselves against county election officials across the country. There was some “bad blood” according to Dana. In the vein of keep-your-enemies-close she accepted an offer as a Keynote speaker at a cybersecurity conference in 2011. To an audience full of IT geeks, amongst them her persistent naysayers, she laid bare the issue. Ask for forgiveness! She noted that her earlier POV that their concerns, about DRE, were the stuff of “science fiction” was proved wrong. Since taking that stance, the intervening years exposed many episodes malware etc. across the IT and internet environment. Mea culpa behind her she challenged those in the audience “this country needs your wisdom, your knowledge of science”. She called for the creation of better digital systems that incorporated a paper trail or other way to audit while still being a secret ballot, easy-to-use-interface, greatest security conceivable and open-source coding.

In the audience was, among others, Josh Benaloh author of “Verifiable Secret-Ballot Elections” and a constant critic of DRE from Rice University, Dan Wallach (Professor Computer Science). Armed with the challenge issued by Dana, these well connected and hard-working individuals started collaborating. As it turns out, Benaloh’s proposal leverages something calls homomorphic encryption (HE), used widely today in authenticating credit card transactions etc. HE as you vote converts your vote from binary 0 for Candidate A, or 1 for Candidate B, to untracable mathematical “gibberish”. With HE one nonetheless has the ability, if holding your personal key, to track back and verify your vote, yet the system is very difficult to hack. Changing a vote, adding votes or deleting votes is hard to do but will always be detected if attempted. Therein lies one problem you’ve detected a hack in an active election. New procedures must be developed to objectively evaluate and remediate such a scenario.

DeBeauvior put the team’s proposal out to bid in 2012 and got back the usual. We can sell you an improved version of our current system but we are not interested in "greenfielding" something new that would obsolete what we have "on-the-shelf." It was a big loss for DeBeauvior in what had been a year marked by personal loss-the sudden death of her husband and more. Fast forward to 2016, Benaloh long part of MSFT, had previously sold the idea internally but no real momentum resulted. For MSFT, the market was too small and too political but in light of 2016 Benaloh was asked to reintroduce the proposal. In the end, MSFT created a free product in 2019 called ElectionGuard (EG). EG was made to be added on to all vendor platforms. It was tested as effective in a small election in the town of Fulton, WI. By 9PM, on election day, the system had verified all 3,000 votes as accurate. EG is very promising but doable work remains to bring it to fruition. Governments will need more certification to comply with regulations etc. and these groups will need to establish procedures including how to handle being hacked. Voting machine vendors will need to configure EG and also negotiate a way to receive some revenue on a per click basis in return for their investment before this is a new reality for digital voting.