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Election officials look to launch security outreach plan

Posted: 9:35 PM, Jan 13, 2020
Updated: 2020-01-13 22:35:21-05
Elections officials: Voting system secure

MADISON — Wisconsin officials are considering spending more than a quarter of a million dollars on a public relations push to reassure voters that elections in the state are secure after nearly three-quarters of respondents to a survey this fall said they were worried about threats.

Wisconsin Elections Commission staffers planned to ask the six commissioners Tuesday for permission to spend $260,000 to hire Madison-based advertising firm KW2 to develop the campaign, which could include online content, videos, news releases and graphics. The money would come from a $7 million federal grant the state received in 2018 to bolster election security.

The commission has already hired KW2 to research voter impressions on election security. Those efforts are expected to cost about $140,000. That money will also come from the federal grant.

The firm conducted an online survey in October of 1,116 Wisconsin adults' impressions of election security. Less than a third of respondents -- 29% -- said they had confidence in election security nationally. More than half -- 54% -- said they had confidence in state elections.

Nearly 70% reported that they were worried about one or more perceived threats. Of those respondents, 78% said they were worried about hacking or cyber-attacks across the country; 62% said they were worried about cyber-attacks in Wisconsin.

Three-quarters said they were worried that absentee ballots were not being counted nationwide; 60% said they were worried about that on the state level.

And nearly three-quarters said they were concerned that voting machines will be tampered with across the country; A little more than half said they worried about that happening in Wisconsin.

Other concerns included foreign interference, voter fraud and votes not counted honestly. About a third reported feeling that their vote doesn't count but nearly 90% still said they planned to go to the polls in 2020.

The advertising firm also held discussions with 12 focus groups across the state in November. A summary of those discussions said most participants were more concerned about security at the national or state level rather than in their own communities. Some rumors, such as children hacking voting equipment or buses of voters visiting multiple voting locations, were so strongly held that participants presented them as fact.

The focus groups responded most positively to messages that informed them about existing safeguards such as testing and certifying election equipment, post-election audits and paper trails for every vote cast in the state, the summary said.

Meagan Wolfe, the commission administrator, wrote in a memo to the panel that KW2 has recommended two more phases of outreach, including digital ads, that could cost up to $630,000, but staffers want to hold off and evaluate how the initial campaign performs during the spring elections.

Staff also plan to ask the commission Tuesday to accept another federal election security grant, this one worth $7.8 million. The state would have to provide a $1.6 million match to get the grant. Commission spokesman Reid Magney said staff are looking at possibly using money within the panel's existing budget to fund the match rather than asking lawmakers for it.

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