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Wisconsin election infrastructure is mostly secure — but inaccurate counts are hard to catch and correct

Posted at 2:20 PM, Oct 11, 2020
and last updated 2020-10-11 15:20:38-04

Long-time Wisconsin resident and election reformer Jim Mueller said when he was a municipal clerk two decades ago, elections were not a stressful part of small town administration.

When Mueller became clerk of the town of Middleton near Madison, elections could be arduous — including tallying votes into the early morning hours — but it was hardly high drama.

That was 1999. Today, in addition to the influence campaigns now attempting to undermine our faith in the electoral process, hackers are targeting election infrastructure, including the systems used to register voters and count ballots.

In fact, Mueller became so alarmed by the threats to election security that he helped inspire the creation of Wisconsin Election Integrity, a grassroots watchdog group that routinely challenges the Wisconsin Elections Commission and municipal clerks to plug security gaps and improve systems to detect tampering.

Mueller said voters should understand how their votes are counted — but secrecy around voting machine technology and software limits accountability surrounding a fundamental democratic process. He calls that a “dangerous situation.”

“That should set off the red lights and strobes, alarm bells sounding, you know? People, wake up!”

The Elections Commission, a bipartisan committee tasked with administering the state’s elections, says the state’s election infrastructure is secure. The commission has issued a detailed report describing how the state has prepared for the Nov. 3 election, including a “candlelight” contingency plan on how to continue without some of the technical services it normally relies on.

Building on these and other sources, Wisconsin Watch sought out local and national election experts to answer the question: How secure is election infrastructure in one of the nation’s top swing states? The answers were mixed.

Wisconsin Watch found that:

  • Experts believe Wisconsin’s voter registration system, WisVote, appears to be secure from tampering.
  • Most counties are using or plan to use newly available federal funds to help them detect hacking and malware.
  • Machines used to tabulate ballots from about 1 million voters in Wisconsin contain modems that, unless properly managed, could make them vulnerable to attack.
  • Existing post-election audits may not be able to catch altered or incorrect vote totals.

Although Wisconsin’s election technology is generally seen as secure, the threats against it remain significant.

William Evanina, director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, warned in recent months that bad actors may try to compromise election technology as part of a broader effort to undermine faith in the results, including possible attacks on election infrastructure.

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