After Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential elections, not everyone is convinced Wisconsin is doing enough for elections security. Russian hackers targeted Wisconsin’s voter registration system, but didn’t successfully access them.
In April, U.S. Rep. Ron Kind wrote a letter stating his concerns that some Wisconsin precincts use voting equipment that could be vulnerable to hacking by “adversarial foreign actors.” He asked Meagan Wolfe, interim administrator for the Wisconsin Elections Commission, to explain how she would make sure that didn’t happen.
“Wisconsinites should know that their vote is secure, and that the state is taking every step possible to ensure our elections never face foreign interference again,” Kind said in a statement.
But according to Wolfe, there's no reason to worry.
The machines are certified and safe, she said on the Sunday political talk show “UpFront with Mike Gousha.” Asked whether her recent briefings at the National Association of State Election Directors would lead her to expect “foreign actors” to try to hack into Wisconsin’s elections, she gave a positive, if somewhat indirect, answer.
“We did not learn any information that changes our course of action as we head into August or November,” she said.
That current course of action includes several efforts to ensure the state's elections are secure: training local elections officials, hiring employees to increase registration security and researching the best methods for post-election audits.
Wolfe replaced Michael Haas after he was ousted based on his previous work for the now-defunct Government Accountability Board. The GAB was dismantled in 2015 by Republicans who cited concerns about bias against them, and a report of the GAB’s handling of its John Doe investigation led some Republican legislators to call for Haas to resign.
Addressing Kind’s concerns, Wolfe said that each piece of Wisconsin voting equipment is certified by both the federal government and the state, and every vote in Wisconsin has a paper trail. As proof of the state’s accuracy, she pointed to the 2016 recount, which resulted in totals that “came out very close to what was tabulated and that did not impact the results at all.” Trump gained 844 votes and Clinton gained 713 votes in the recount.
Wolfe acknowledged that individuals do try to access the state's election system, even now. There are “thousands, if not millions of people, trying to find a way into” the Wisconsin enterprise system, which protects all Wisconsin state agencies, including the election agency.
“But it really is a success story in that there haven’t been any successful attempts to get into that statewide enterprise,” she said. “People try to find a vulnerability in our system and they are not successful.”
Host Mike Gousha asked whether some of those would-be hackers could be trying to get at the information for “nefarious purposes.” Wolfe said they’re “from anywhere and from anyone for any real purpose, but the important point is just making sure that they’re blocked if they do not have any legitimate business with the state of Wisconsin."
Unlike some other states, elections in Wisconsin are administered at the municipal, rather than county, level. The state has been focusing on training its 1,853 municipal clerks “making sure they can build on that benefit they have of having a very local connection with their communities” and “are able to really detect anomalies from a very personal place,” Wolfe said.
The state keeps logs of “every single move that’s made on our statewide voter registration system,” Wolfe said. They’re recruiting technology employees to, among other tasks, help automate the monitoring process, thanks to a $7 million federal grant.
“We need to make sure we have people that can analyze those logs, detect anomalies, and also put in flags into our system that help us to identify if something is off kilter, even a little bit,” she said.
While the state already conducts random post-election audits, they’re researching “more robust” processes used by other states. Any proposal to expand the post-election audit process will be brought before the Wisconsin Elections Commission in September, Wolfe said.