Congress, states don’t seem inclined to incorporate biometrics in new voting technologies
While other nations are rapidly incorporating biometrics into their voting technologies, the US Congress and states – and local jurisdictions – don’t seem to be all that concerned about utilizing biometrics to verify the identities of individuals voting in America, despite the concerns over election machine cyber-tampering that’s continued to mount since the 2016 elections.
In its report, Observations on Voting Equipment Use and Replacement (PDF), which was requested by lawmakers, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) — Congress’ investigative arm — “did not consider the issue of biometrics as part of our work,” Biometric Update was told by Rebecca Gambler, Director, Homeland Security & Justice issues at GAO.
In fact, Gambler said, “GAO’s prior work on elections issues also has not addressed biometrics, and thus, we don’t have background or insights to share in this area.”
Meanwhile, the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) chief cybersecurity official, Jeanette Manfra, Assistant Secretary, Office of Cybersecurity and Communications, National Protection and Programs Directorate, told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s March 21 hearing on election security that, “We have evidence of … election-related systems in 21 states were targeted” by Russia.
DHS’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis Acting Director Samuel Liles also testified that by late last September, the Intelligence Community had established that 21 states “were potentially targeted by Russian government-linked cyber actors” by scanning of Internet-connected election systems.
None of these or other officials or experts who appeared before the panel, though, discussed biometrics in their testimony regarding new voting technologies as part of the voting security debate.
Much of the reticence in the US over deploying biometrics in the voting process tends to pivot on privacy rights, although two counties in West Virginia are the first in the nation to test a mobile biometric, blockchain voting application for members of the Armed Forces overseas.
Critics and privacy rights advocates contend use of biometrics for voter identification purposes is a potentially significant encroachment on voters’ privacy and creates worries that their personally identifiable information could be cyber-compromised. They also fear governmental cyber breaches could disclosure their personal information. Other opponents believe the use of biometrics in voting presents a dangerous threat to democracy due to qualms about violations of the secrecy of their vote, like political party affiliation.
But, there are also concerns that other “new problems” will be created, such as potential logistical and procedural issues, including the costs for biometric readers and infrastructure, maintenance, storage and upgrades, not to mention human, time, and material resources allocation; additional training of commissions and polling staff; technological failures that could disenfranchise voters; and extra data storage that demands higher security.
GAO explained that, “The process for replacing voting equipment exists within an administrative and regulatory framework in which the authority to regulate and carry out elections is shared by federal, state, and local officials. For example, states are responsible for administering elections; however, the local election jurisdictions within each state are largely responsible for managing, planning, and conducting elections, with about 10,300 local election jurisdictions nationwide performing these duties. With respect to voting equipment, this decentralization of the responsibility for administering elections has led to the use of a diverse variety of equipment, as well as different processes and approaches for carrying out the responsibilities related to the selection, funding, implementation, and maintenance of the equipment.”
“According to election subject matter experts we spoke with, the costs to acquire new equipment and the availability of funding to pay those costs is a key factor that jurisdictions and states consider when determining whether to replace voting equipment,” GAO’s survey found, noting that, “Acquiring new voting equipment involves a variety of costs and expenses. For example, in addition to the cost of the equipment itself, there can be other associated costs, such as training for poll workers and elections staff on the new equipment and voter outreach and education about the change in equipment, that may be incurred as existing equipment is replaced. These related acquisition and transition costs and expenses are incurred by the jurisdictions and states, which in turn must obtain or allocate resources to cover those costs.”
In addition, GAO found, “The ability of local election jurisdictions and states to maintain voting equipment and receive timely vendor support is a factor considered when determining whether to replace equipment, particularly as the equipment ages. Election subject matter experts we spoke with noted the importance of access to replacement parts for existing voting equipment as something jurisdictions and states may consider when determining whether to replace equipment.”
And, “Without adequate access to replacement parts and technical service, either from vendors or supplied by in-house expertise, it can be difficult for jurisdictions and states to maintain their current equipment at a satisfactory level,” GAO said.
The performance and features existing voting equipment and potential replacement equipment “is also a factor considered by local election jurisdictions and states when determining whether to replace voting equipment,” GAO reported. “For example, jurisdictions and states may consider the age of their current equipment and how well it is performing, as well as how its performance compares to that of new equipment available for acquisition. In addition, according to elections literature we reviewed and election subject matter experts we spoke with, jurisdictions and states may also take into account specific features new voting equipment can provide that might better meet their needs. The desired features may vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction depending on specific needs and circumstances, but such features may include an enhanced ability to process a high volume of absentee ballots, capability to present ballots in multiple languages, or ease for poll workers to set up and for voters to use, for example.”
GAO said that, “Given the potential challenges local election officials have identified with using aging or outdated equipment, in our local election jurisdiction survey we asked jurisdictions when they first used their predominant voting equipment. Based on their responses, we estimate that jurisdictions with over half of the population nationwide used predominant voting equipment in the 2016 general election that was first deployed between 2002 and 2006. Jurisdictions with the next largest estimated share of the population (28 percent) used equipment that was first deployed between 2012 and 2016.”
At present, according to GAO’s analysis “of the predominant type of equipment used to process the largest number of ballots during the 2016 general election, jurisdictions using optical/digital scan equipment represented the largest estimated share of the population nationwide, followed by jurisdictions using direct recording electronic (DRE) equipment. Specifically, on the basis of our local election jurisdiction survey, we estimate that jurisdictions with about 63 percent of the population nationwide used optical/digital scan equipment as their predominant voting equipment during the election, while jurisdictions with an estimated 32 percent of the population nationwide used DREs. Jurisdictions with less than 1 percent of the population nationwide used paper hand-counted ballots.”
Of the jurisdictions using optical/digital scan equipment, the most widely used model of optical/digital scan equipment was the precinct count optical/digital scan, with jurisdictions having an estimated 46 percent of the population nationwide using it as their predominant voting equipment.
Jurisdictions predominantly using optical/digital scan equipment reported: timely election night reporting; ease of troubleshooting or resolving equipment malfunctions during Election Day; preventing or alerting voters of any over votes or under votes before a ballot is cast; the ability to facilitate a post-election audit; security of equipment against outside electronic hacking or intrusion; and ease of conducting routine maintenance.
“On the basis of our review of literature and studies, interviews with election subject matter experts, and analysis of our local election jurisdiction and state surveys,” GAO “identified four key factors and related issue areas within them that jurisdictions and states consider when deciding whether to replace voting equipment. After considering the factors, jurisdictions may decide to replace their equipment or continue using their existing equipment. The four key factors we identified are: (1) the need for voting equipment to meet federal, state, and local voting system standards and requirements; (2) the cost to acquire new equipment and availability of funding; (3) the ability to maintain equipment and receive timely vendor support; and (4) the overall performance and features of voting equipment.”
“In our local election jurisdiction and state surveys,” GAO continued, “we asked election officials to rate issue areas related to each of these factors as to how important they were when determining whether to replace voting equipment and then rank the issue areas in terms of which were ‘most important’ in making the determination. Analysis of the results of our surveys indicates that the 24 issue areas within the four factors vary in their relative importance to jurisdictions and states when determining whether to replace voting equipment.”
Elsewhere around the world, though, according to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance’s (IDEA) information and communication technologies (ICTs) Elections Database, as of 2016 more than 50 countries had adopted biometrics in elections, with significant differences between regions.
“While there are virtually no users in Europe, about half of the countries in Africa and Latin America use this technology in elections.”35 per cent of over 130 surveyed Electoral Management Bodies is capturing biometric data (such as fingerprints or photos) as part of their voter registration process,” IDEA said.
Last June, more than 100 computer science and cybersecurity experts statisticians, and election auditing experts “convey[ed]” their concerns about “election security risks … and other vulnerabilities in our voting system,” in a letter to Congress, urging legislators “to take [their recommended] … simple, straightforward, and cost-effective actions to set meaningful standards to protect American elections.
The National Election Defense Coalition (NEDC) and coalition partners compiled signatures for this letter.
“A credible voter register gives legitimacy to the electoral process and helps prevent electoral fraud,” IDEA said, noting, “However, [that] voter registration remains a complex and contested task. It is one of the most important activities that an electoral management body needs to conduct, but it is also one of the most costly in terms of both time and resources.”
“Many countries that face challenges in creating an accurate voter register are considering reforming their voter registration systems through the introduction of biometric technologies,” which is being driven “by its largely apolitical nature,” IDEA said, adding, “Investing in high-tech solutions allows stakeholders to demonstrate their commitment to resolving electoral problems. At the same time, expectations on biometric solutions may be exaggerated.”
IDEA produced a guide that “provides an overview of key concepts and considerations for all stakeholders involved in discussions about the application of biometrics in elections, both for voter registration before an election and for voter verification at polling stations on election day.”
The Independent Electoral and Boundary Commission had earlier noted, however, that “during the implementation of voter registration and elections-related activities” for Kenyan elections in 2013, “it became increasingly visible that these new technologies did not yield the wanted results.” While, “notably, new methods for registering voters using biometric data contributed to a cleaner voters’ roll … at the end of the day, the IEBC encountered severe problems linked to the new equipment. The decision to introduce electronic devices that were so critical to the credibility of election operations have therefore in some ways had the opposite effect.”
M2SYS, which manufactures TrueVoter, said, “The results of recent biometric voting exercises in countries such as Kenya and Ghana have taught us that governments expect fast, accurate, and reliable voter registration at the polls under any conditions that help to maintain the integrity and credibility of the electoral process and reduce mistrust and irregularities.”
According to experts, if properly tailored to a jurisdiction’s specific needs and is satisfactorily implemented, then biometrics certainly could put forward better accessibility for citizens; help alleviate long lines, time to register and vote; streamline and speed-up the election cycle; make voters and electoral authorities more confident about the accuracy and reliability of registry roles; improve e-voting security; and reduce — if not eliminate — multiple registration and voting, mitigate the threat of impersonation, identity theft, and exploitation of identities of deceased voters
Consequently, M2SYS says, governments seeking to implement a biometric voter registration project [will] expect the system to:
• Prevent duplicate registrations
• Provide a simple and user-friendly interface for registering and identifying voters
• Is easily scalable
• Ensure quick and precise biometric voting identification
• Provide a clear and easily accessible audit trail
• Facilitate interoperability between government agencies for database consolidation and maintenance