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Meet the computer science students working to save Idaho elections

Election Commission on the Blue
From left-to-right: Idaho Deputy Secretary of State Jason Hancock, Dr. Jaclyn Kettler (Political Science), Dr. Hoda Mehrpouyan (Computer Science), Nahid Anwar (PhD in Computing student), Dr. Amit Jain (Computer Science), Commissioner Christy McCormick, Dr. Gaby Dagher (Computer Science), Commissioner Don Palmer, Jack Cunningham (undergraduate CS researcher), Idaho Secretary of State Lawrence Denney, and Idaho Chief Deputy Secretary of State Chad Houck.

Two years ago, the Idaho Secretary of the State designated a team of interdisciplinary researchers to establish the Idaho Election Cybersecurity Center to begin developing tools, technologies, and policies aimed at protecting the future of elections from cyber and information attacks.

Concerns of voter fraud and more safeguards for elections have circulated across Idaho as recently as this summer. With just a week before the midterm elections, the team of interdisciplinary researchers and students are hoping to put their tools to the test this election season in Idaho.

Kamryn Parker HeadshotMeet Kamryn Parker

Kamyrn Parker is a familiar face for faculty and staff in the Department of Computer Science. The Chico, California native began her journey at Boise State six years ago.

Parker began her tenure in computer science before switching to interdisciplinary studies to craft an undergraduate degree that better suited her goals. Parker graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Interdisciplinary Studies building a unique degree with three emphasis areas – computer science, applied mathematics and data science, as well as a certification in data science.

Now, Parker is using her time as a second-year computer science graduate student conducting research with associate professor Hoda Mehrpouyan, on the issues poll administrators and state officials are facing in Idaho at polling locations across the state. 

“My hopes are that we can build a secure environment around the election process in Idaho,” Parker said. “I think now more than ever we have to find a way to instill trust back into voting.”

Her research targeted Idaho election administrators to understand current practices. Today, election incidents research focuses solely on reporting, but not on the response that resolves the incidents. In Idaho, resolution protocols vary from county to county. Parker’s research identified the need for Idaho to develop a framework and tool to unify incident reporting and resolutions.

Parker’s research for the Idaho Election Cybersecurity Center landed her an opportunity to present at the first ever workshop on election infrastructure security at the European Symposium on Research in Computer Security.

“Dr. Mehrpouyan’s research appealed to me right away with how interesting and in the moment with what’s happening in the world it was,” Parker said. “It sounded like something I knew I could make an impact in my research to make a difference.”

By identifying the commonalities of issues that range across the state, Parker and the interdisciplinary team of researchers were able to begin building an incident report tool to lessen the impact incidents have on election day. The creation of this tool is expected to help limit the voter delay process across the state.

The tool created by the team was modeled similarly to the ticketing process the Office of Information Technology at Boise State uses with the Help Desk at the Zone. The process allows for a centralized communication tool that has been developed by undergraduate research student Jack Cunningham. 

Meet Jack CunninghamJack Cunningham Headshot

Jack Cunningham grew up in Long Beach, California, but had a passion for snowboarding and longed for the mountains. A visit to the Treasure Valley, coupled with a scholarship opportunity through the Western Undergraduate Exchange, led him to designing a web tool aimed at protecting Idaho elections.

Cunningham, a computer science senior, works behind the scenes developing the crucial website application tool to create a formal communication process of reporting and resolving issues on election day across Idaho highlighted through the research Parker conducted. 

“I’ve found freedom in working on creating our communication tool and utilizing the experiences and things I’ve learned in the classroom and through my student work with OIT,” Cunningham said. “Dr. Mehrpouyan and the team have allowed me the ability to create and build on my own while also having the support of a team in a role that serves an important purpose.”

Most states across the country utilize electronic voting and tabulation systems, with many being at least a decade old. Issues with unsupported software, poor ballot design, and malfunctioning machines cause issues from long lines to lost votes on election day. Without a centralized system for correcting and navigating these issues, Idaho risks future bumps in the road on election day.  

Cunningham developed a website which works as a medium reporting tool to record and ticket election day incidents. Previously, incidents on election day were communicated in various forms via phone or through email with no formal reporting or resolution process.

The new web application allows administrators, poll workers and supervisors a centralized method in reporting and resolving election issues. Incidents are reported directly on the web where they are classified by precinct, level of concern and category of incident. Incidents range from administrative and policy issues, to ballot handling and voter identification errors.

“Our tool is going to cut away the process of reporting and resolving incidents by taking away the multiple forms of communication that have been used previously,” Cunningham said. “The tool will catalog every report and create a system where incidents can be tracked and the ability to centralize resolution efforts.”

Incidents are streamlined and ranked based on level and location, providing county clerks the opportunity to view and assign incidents in a maintained and ordered fashion. 

The center provided Cunningham with his first opportunity to work on a large scale project, providing a tool with real-world applications not only in Idaho, but across the country.

Parker and Cunningham both work on research for the Department of Computer Science associate professor Hoda Mehrpouyan. Mehrpouyan’s work in cybersecurity focuses on ensuring privacy, security and robustness of mission-critical cyber-physical systems. She has received funding from the National Science Foundation and the Idaho Secretary of State. She has also been recognized with additional funding from the National Security Agency GenCyber Teacher Program in 2017 and 2019 for her work on cybersecurity of the election process in Idaho.

The Idaho Election Cybersecurity Center is led by Department of Computer Science’s professors Hoda Mehrpouyan, Gaby Dagher, and Amit Jain; and Department of Political Science’s professor Jaclyn Kettler.