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Election Tech Monitors Voter Records, Helps Secure Midterms

Two platforms are offering another layer of security in the voting process; one offers voters real-time alerts if registration information changes, while another flags unusual patterns of record updates for election officials.

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Can automated alerts and machine learning help midterm elections go smoothly and securely? That’s the hope of a Harvard University technology lab and Protect Democracy, a nonprofit focused on preserving democracy in the U.S.

Each group offers its own free tool designed to monitor for any unwarranted changes to voter registration records and deliver timely alerts. Harvard Public Interest Tech Lab’s VoteFlare is designed to alert voters, while Protect Democracy’s VoteShield is for election officials’ use.

If all goes well, the tools will help constituents and public officials closely monitor for any signs of honest errors or deliberate attacks, allowing them to sort out voting registration discrepancies quickly before they impede ballot casting.

What's the Risk?


Constituents whose information does not match that on their voting records could run into difficulties.

Having the wrong party affiliation down prevents voting in the closed primaries, for example. Meanwhile, a mismatch in addresses could block individuals from voting entirely, restrict them to casting a provisional ballot — which is not always counted — or require them to somehow figure out the address on record so they can vote in that precinct, warned Latanya Sweeney, Ji Su Yoo and Jinyan Zang in a 2017 report.

Two of those report authors — Sweeney and Zang — helped create VoteFlare. Sweeney, a Harvard professor of the Practice of Government and Technology, led the team.

Their 2017 report highlighted the potential for imposters to exploit weaknesses in online methods for updating voter registrations to change victims’ registered addresses. Researchers said at the time that it would be fairly easy and low-cost to conduct such tampering at scale in 35 states and D.C., unless the jurisdictions took mitigating steps.

The research outlined only what was possible. It did not suggest such attacks had happened, outside of one reported event during the 2016 Republican primary in Riverside County, Calif., when two out of roughly 900,000 registered voters complained that their recorded party affiliations were changed without their consent, according to Registrar of Voters Rebecca Spencer, per The Press-Enterprise.

A variety of possible threats face voting rolls, from purges that deliberately or accidentally mark many eligible voters as “inactive,” to tampering by a foreign adversary. Russian state actors have shown interest in voting rolls and accessed at least two in 2016, although they do not appear to have impacted votes.

Quinn Raymond manages VoteShield, a project of nonpartisan nonprofit organization Protect Democracy. He told Government Technology that nation states may see voter rolls as tempting targets.

“If you were to hack into a voter database, that’s a very scalable attack … than hacking into a single voting machine, for instance,” he said. “It’s very cheap compared to other forms of projecting force into the world.”

And any attack — or suggestion that there might have been an attack — undermines public faith in the election results.

The risk isn’t just from malicious actors. Well-intentioned election officials might make some mistakes as they work to maintain a vast number of documents, and a few honest errors could be misconstrued as a sign of a larger conspiracy, Raymond said.

“There’s more and more outside partisan groups that are analyzing this public data one way or another. And they often have an ax to grind or a partisan narrative that they’re trying to spin. And they will use any discrepancies in the data, no matter how innocent, to attack election administrators,” he said.

Errors may be inevitable but monitoring tools aim to make them rarer.

“The ideal voter file should be both complete and accurate, as much as is possible,” Raymond said. “In any given state where you have millions of residents, each having their own dramas at any given moment in their life, and changes to their lives, this is actually technically impossible.”

Activity Alerts for Voters


Josh Visnaw is the project manager for VoteFlare, which lets individuals sign up to receive real-time alerts if any of their voter registration details change. Visnaw likened it to getting credit alerts and said constituents can choose to receive the messages via email, voicemail or text.

He saw it as a reassurance to voters and a communication tool that could supplement election administrators’ efforts.

“All it’s doing is notifying that, ‘Hey, there’s a change that has been made.’ And it’s going to redirect them to remedy or fix or take a look at that voter record before it’s too late,” he told GovTech.

The offering debuted in time for Georgia’s 2020 runoff senatorial elections and recently was used for Texas’ March 2022 midterm primaries. In both cases, local civil society partners helped bring VoteFlare to residents’ attention.

The New Georgia Project — a nonpartisan nonprofit focused on increasing voter registration among underrepresented, eligible residents — was among those partners, the Harvard Kennedy School says.

“Voter registration is one of those things we should check regularly for lots of reasons — maybe you moved, got married, changed your name, or, honestly, you might have been purged from the voter rolls. It happens!” the New Georgia Project states on its website.

Few people remember to check their voter registration records during off-year elections, which means they can miss discovering if they’ve been moved to the inactive voters list, Visnaw said. Prompt alerts should let them know in time to get reinstated.

The VoteFlare team aims to update the tool to serve voters in all states, and hopes to begin partnering with election officials, too. The team did not reach out to Texan election officials to avoid bothering them during a busy time, Visnaw said, but the team hopes to demo the tool to various election officials in the next few months.

Identifying Strange Patterns


While VoteFlare messages residents, VoteShield focuses on election officials. It emails alerts about any strange patterns of changes and its online dashboard offers a detailed way to review those updates to see if anything truly is amiss.

States must keep centralized voter databases and VoteShield takes regular “snapshots” of those publicly available records, to track changes over time and see what a normal pattern of changes are for that jurisdiction.

For example, officials often expect to see more address changes in records of younger voters, because they’re the most likely to move often for education or work. But a wave of changes impacting a particular gender or race would be cause for alarm.

If a pattern of changes occurs that’s unexpected for a particular jurisdiction, use of machine learning and statistics helps VoteShield flag it. Election officials can then click into records for more details to see if changes appear to be due to mistakes, possible malicious activity or simply unusual, but innocuous, behavior.

VoteShield has updated the offerings since first launch, and the pandemic-driven surge in absentee voting also prompted a new tool called BallotShield that can track for issues such as delays in ballots being sent out or received.

In one instance, the tool flagged that 122 ballots were being sent to a single building.

“The first instinct of anyone seeing that is, ‘Oh my god, someone is doing election fraud. Is that a candidate’s house? Is that an empty field?” Raymond recalled.

Clicking in the tool to pull up Google Maps revealed that address was a convent.

“Those are, in fact, nuns who are exercising their right to vote,” Raymond said. “We were able to see, in tremendous detail, the efficacy of vote by mail and the integrity of vote by mail.”

Having detailed data like this at hand may also give officials helpful evidence to point to when pushing back at election disinformation, and can simply make their jobs easier, Raymond said. For example, a recent upgrade lets election officials better track timelines, so they can be sure their routine voting roll maintenance is scheduled to avoid removing any ineligible voters during the federally mandated freeze period on and around elections.



Government Technology is a sister site to Governing. Both are divisions of e.Republic.
Jule Pattison-Gordon is a staff writer for Government Technology. She previously wrote for PYMNTS and The Bay State Banner, and holds a B.A. in creative writing from Carnegie Mellon. She’s based outside Boston.


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