Election Officials In Closely Divided Wisconsin Take Steps To Secure The Vote
Wisconsin is known for both high turnout elections and razor thin margins.
President Trump won the state by fewer than 23,000 votes, and in 2020, it could be the pivotal state that decides the presidency. That means Wisconsin could be fertile ground for those who want to disrupt the election.
We recently went to a poll worker training in West Allis, where people were learning how to handle absentee ballots. Carole Donovan, a chief inspector, says she and her workers take ballot security very seriously.
“[The ballots] are all put in sealed bags, immediately taken by me to city hall where they are always kept under lock and key,” Donovan said.
Since 2016, those old-school security measures have been supplemented with upgrades to new systems, like the state’s voter registration database.
Milwaukee Election Executive Director Neil Albrecht says there’s really one goal for election officials: “To make sure that as we approach those elections we’re fully prepared, and there are no surprises. At least no surprises that we can control.”
Wisconsin’s top election official, Meagan Wolfe, is all too aware that Democrats and Republicans view winning Wisconsin as key to winning the White House.
“We’re in the spotlight, and so there’s a lot more attention on everything that’s here. But, we’ve also had now three-plus years to really increase our defense,” Wolfe said.
"We've done a lot to make sure that we understand what a bad day in elections might look like and how we would respond." - Meagan Wolfe, Wisconsin's top election official
Like a lot of states, Wisconsin has been working closely with the federal government on election security.
“We’ve done a lot to make sure that we understand what a bad day in elections might look like and how we would respond,” Wolfe said.
The commission has held trainings on disaster-readiness around the state and offered grants to clerks to update their software and websites. But Wolfe says this year, threats to election security means more than a database or a results website getting penetrated.
“It's more of a claim somebody makes that our systems have been hacked or are vulnerable, and making sure that people know where to go for the correct information,” Wolfe said.
The elections commission has hired a communications firm to teach local officials how to talk to the public about security incidents and how elections work. One thing election officials won’t do is get involved with falsehoods about political candidates or policy.
Wisconsin is especially challenging to secure because it has the most decentralized election system in the country. Along with a state commission, nearly 2,000 municipalities and counties run elections in the state.
Charles Stewart, who runs the MIT election data and science lab, says it’s a challenge “making sure that innovations, changes to the laws, changes to practices get distributed down to the smallest of the small jurisdictions that might just have a dozen voters.”
On the flip side, that decentralization means that one hack won’t disrupt the whole state. Also, voters tend to have more confidence in elections run by friends and neighbors.
“If you control for degrees of difficulty, it’s kind of miraculous that what happens in Wisconsin,” Stewart said.
Miraculous or not, voters are still on edge, like small business owner Bela Roongta.
“I’m more concerned that people will vote and that their vote will be based on misinformation or lack of information,” Roongta said.
A recent NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll says the spread of misleading information ranked highest among voters fears about the 2020 election.