This Could Be Microsoft's Most Important Product in 2020. If it Works

Alfred Ng, writing for CNET: Building 83 doesn’t stand out on Microsoft’s massive Redmond, Washington, headquarters. But last week, the nameless structure hosted what might be the software giant’s most important product of 2020. Tucked away in the corner of a meeting room, a sign reading “ElectionGuard” identifies a touchscreen that asks people to cast their votes. An Xbox adaptive controller is connected to it, as are an all-white printer and a white ballot box for paper votes. If you didn’t look carefully, you might have mistaken all that for an array of office supplies. ElectionGuard is open-source voting-machine software that Microsoft announced in May 2019. In Microsoft’s demo, voters make their choices by touchscreen before printing out two copies. A voter is supposed to double-check one copy before placing it into a ballot box to be counted by election workers. The other is a backup record with a QR code the voter can use to check that the vote was counted after polls close. With ElectionGuard, Microsoft isn’t setting out to create an unhackable vote – no one thinks that’s possible – but rather a vote in which hacks would be quickly noticed.

The product demo was far quieter than the typical big tech launch. No flashy lights or hordes of company employees cheering their own product, like Microsoft’s dual screen phone, its highly anticipated dual-screen laptop or its new Xbox Series X. And yet, if everything goes right, ElectionGuard could have an impact that lasts well beyond the flashy products in Microsoft’s pipeline. ElectionGuard addresses what has become a crucial concern in US democracy: the integrity of the vote. The software is designed to establish end-to-end verification for voting machines. A voter can check whether his or her vote was counted. If a hacker had managed to alter a vote, it would be immediately obvious because encryption attached to the vote wouldn’t have changed. The open-source software has been available since last September. But Microsoft gets its first real-world test on Tuesday, when ElectionGuard is used in a local vote in Fulton, Wisconsin.