New voter registration system will require Windows 10 in counties

Sharon Fisher//September 4, 2019

New voter registration system will require Windows 10 in counties

Sharon Fisher//September 4, 2019

photo of ada county elections office
It looks quiet now, but this roomful of voting equipment in Ada County will be very busy next year. Photo by Sharon Fisher

New voter registration software the Secretary of State’s office plans to roll out in January will offer more security, meaning county clerks will no longer require a dedicated PC to connect to the system. However, that also means county clerks will need at least one PC running Windows 10 to ensure the system is secure, said Chad Houck, deputy secretary of state.

Microsoft has announced that, as of January 14, it will no longer support Windows 7, an operating system released on July 22, 2009. That includes security updates, meaning PCs running Windows 7 will be more vulnerable to hackers.

photo of phil mcgrane and stephen o'meara
Ada County Clerk Phil McGrane, left, and CIO Stephen O’Meara. Photo by Sharon Fisher

Even the biggest Idaho counties haven’t yet completely converted to Windows 10 yet, though they are working on it. Ada County has centralized its IT department and is updating its PCs, said CIO Stephen O’Meara. Bonner County is also in process, said election administrator Julie Hancock in Pocatello. “We do not [have Windows 10] but our IT department is slowly upgrading the entire county so we should have Windows 10 before the end of September,” she said.

Other states are dealing with this issue as well. For example, Wisconsin recently learned that hundreds of PCs in clerks’ offices were still running Windows 7.

photo of chad houck
Chad Houck. Photo by Sharon Fisher

Previously, the proprietary voter registration software required a dedicated PC in each county clerk’s office, connected to the database in Boise through a private network operated by the Idaho Transportation Department, Houck said. The Secretary of State’s office also managed those individual PCs, such as updating their software.

The voter registration system had to be set up that way because more modern methods of security didn’t exist when it was written, Houck said.

The Secretary of State’s office issued a Request for Proposal in June, 2018, to update the system to configurable software from a vendor in time for the 2020 election cycle. The office announced a year ago it had awarded the contract to Tenex Software Solutions Inc. At that time, the project was estimated to cost $4 million.

The Tenex system includes modern security, such as multifactor authentication. That requires people logging into the system to have more than one method to prove their identity, such as both a password and receiving a text message on their phone.

The Secretary of State’s office hasn’t decided yet which security methods it plans to use, Houck said. “Authentication is one of the pieces,” he said. That will mean county clerks’ offices will no longer need a dedicated PC for voter registration, but could use any machine in the office, and could use that machine for other purposes as well, he said.

But for the voter registration system to be secure, that PC needs to run Windows 10. And because the voter registration system no longer requires a dedicated PC, each county clerk’s office, rather than the Secretary of State’s office, will be responsible for ensuring that the machine is kept updated and patched.

Until July 29, 2016, individuals could upgrade to Windows 10 for free, assuming they had a PC with powerful enough hardware to run it. But that would have required the voter registration system to be rewritten, Houck explained.

It now costs $119 or $199 per PC to upgrade to Windows 10, though some computer websites have indicated as recently as June that the free upgrade might still be available. Counties may also have individual contracts with Microsoft to lower the cost.

The Secretary of State’s office is contacting county clerks to let them know about this, determine how many don’t have Windows 10 PCs and help determine a strategy to get updated by the time the new voter registration system comes online in January.

Houck wouldn’t go so far as to say that non-Windows 10 PCs would be immediately locked out of the voter registration system, but it could come to that, he said. “We’ll have to address that as we get there,” he said.