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Want to steal an election in Wisconsin? It's harder than you think

From the The 2020 election is over. Here’s what happened (and what didn’t) series
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Poll workers

Poll workers, like David Stracener, left, and Amelia Rhinerson, with Heidi Heffron-Clark, at right, seen processing absentee ballots in Stoughton last month, work in pairs and represent one of the key safeguards against election fraud in Wisconsin.

The flurry of lawsuits President Donald Trump and his allies have filed in Wisconsin since the Nov. 3 election have mostly concerned the manner in which absentee voting was conducted: how clerks interpreted and carried out the laws that have long governed elections in the state.

In their court filings, the Trump campaign and others have generally avoided specific claims of fraud — even if the chief player in this drama, the president himself, regularly insists, without evidence, that the election was “rigged” and that he “easily” beat President-elect Joe Biden.

But at the heart of the challenges and a related investigation by state Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, into “thousands of complaints” about the election, is the suggestion that someone — or many someones — voted illegally, tampered with the ballots or altered the vote totals.

State and local election clerks have found no evidence of any widespread fraud.

But say you did want to steal the election. What would that take, exactly?

(To be clear, the Wisconsin State Journal does not endorse election fraud; doing any of the following could result in a $10,000 fine and up to 3½ years of combined prison and extended supervision.)

Dane County Recount

Madison police keep an eye on boxes of ballots during a recount of the votes in Dane County at Monona Terrace last month.

Start with the voter.

Say you’re not eligible to vote in Wisconsin, either because you’re from out of state, not a citizen or a felon still under supervision. Before you can receive a ballot, you’d need to register. To register online, you’ll need to provide a valid state driver’s license or ID card that matches a name, date of birth and address on file with the Division of Motor Vehicles.

If there’s no match — and there wouldn’t be if you’re attempting to cheat the system — you’d need to register by mail or in person by providing an acceptable ID or, if you can’t come up with that, the last four digits of your Social Security Number. You’d also need to provide proof of residence, such as a falsified utility bill or a bank statement. Can’t produce either an ID or a Social Security Number? You’ll still need to provide a current address.

Whatever address you provide needs to be a real address, because once you’re registered the clerk will send you a postcard to confirm it. If it comes back as undeliverable, the clerk will try to reach you a second time with a letter. If that fails, your registration status will be changed to “ineligible” and any request for an absentee ballot would be rejected.

But assuming you can register, you’d next need to request an absentee ballot. To do so online, you’ll need to provide a copy of your driver’s license or other acceptable ID. You can get around that requirement by falsely declaring you’re confined to your home because of age or disability (“indefinitely confined”).

Based on data from this year’s election, this is likely the one place where many people are bending the rules. For the November election, 237,729 voters self-identified as indefinitely confined, up from 66,611 in 2016 — likely due to voters seeking to avoid going to the polls during a pandemic. But you can’t just check the box and get a ballot; you still need to be registered and provide an actual address.

Once you’ve voted, you’ll also need to have an accomplice sign the ballot envelope as a witness before you mail it in.

But if you’ve managed to do all this under an assumed identity, that would be one vote down.

Thy neighbor’s vote

Now, say you want to vote again by, for example, appropriating your neighbor’s absentee ballot.

It would help to know whether he’s already requested a ballot. For that, you’d need to look him up on the state’s public voter database, You’ll also need to know his date of birth.

If he hasn’t asked for a ballot yet, you could pretend to be him and request it. Unless you’ve also stolen his driver’s license, you’d have to indicate at this point that he’s indefinitely confined to get around the license requirement.

Once the ballot is on its way, you’d need to intercept it (be warned, however: stealing mail is a federal crime). After filling it out and forging his signature and that of your accomplice witness on the ballot envelope, you’d mail it back.

Of course, for the scheme to work, you’d need to ensure that your neighbor doesn’t request another ballot because he never got the first one, or that he doesn’t go to the polls on Election Day. In either case, a poll worker would see in the poll book that a ballot had already been requested or returned under his name, sparking an investigation.

But assuming he didn’t vote — never a safe assumption in high-turnout elections like a presidential race — that’s two votes down, each at the risk of thousands of dollars in fines and years in prison.

To swing an election decided by more than 20,600 votes, the process would need to be repeated flawlessly thousands of times, presumably by many co-conspirators working together, without being found out.

Go big or go home

What if instead of retail, you went wholesale? How might you tamper with hundreds or thousands of votes before they’re counted?

Wisconsin provides for in-person absentee voting during the two weeks before Election Day, typically at a municipal clerk’s office. But to get to those ballots, you’d need to defeat a rigorous chain of custody set out in state law.

When ballots are moved from a polling site to the clerk’s office, or from the clerk’s office to a polling site to be counted, election officials are required to document who comes into contact with them. When they’re stored, they must be held in containers with tamper-evident seals or in places for which only a few have the key.

So, for example, if Madison offers in-person early voting at a library branch, the person running that site and the person taking the ballots back to the clerk’s office for storage will count the ballots at the end of the day and put them in a sealed bag.

“There’s no real way to get into that bag without breaking that seal,” said Madison Deputy Clerk Jim Verbick.

At the clerk’s office, the seal is broken and the ballots are placed in a secure room until they are taken to the polling places where they will be counted on Election Day.

If you wanted to tamper with the ballots on Election Day — when all ballots, including absentee ballots, are tabulated — the hurdles are even higher. While members of the public are allowed to observe the activities at polling sites on Election Day, they aren’t allowed to touch any ballots (besides their own) or voting equipment.

To handle the ballots, you’d have to be a poll worker. And you’d need an accomplice, since poll workers work in pairs.

Not just anyone can become a poll worker, though. Among other things you must be registered to vote in the county where you’re looking to work, undergo training, take an oath and not be on the ballot or related to anyone who is.

Preference goes to people nominated by the major political parties. The party that received the most votes for governor or president in a ward in the most recent general election gets four workers at that ward’s polling site, and the losing party gets three, for a minimum of seven workers at each site.

Having at least seven people, often from opposing parties, reduces the chance that any one of them could commit fraud without being detected. Add in election observers and members of the media legally allowed to observe polling sites, and the opportunities to create widespread fraud in the counting of ballots diminish ever further.

The process of counting the ballots at the end of Election Day — either at polling sites or, in a handful of municipalities, a central location known as a “central count” site — is also open to the public, the press and other observers as is the canvas, in which election workers reconcile the number of voters who received a ballot with the number of ballots cast. In the rare case where there are more of the latter than the former, state law sets out a public procedure for randomly “drawing down” the total number of votes.

“There are no dark corners or locked doors in elections,” Wisconsin Elections Commission Administrator Meagan Wolfe said last month in response to vague complaints by Trump about voting irregularities in the state.

Machine tampering

Not conspiratorial enough? How about rigging the machines that count the votes?

The No. 1 barrier to this approach is that most ballot-counting machines are not connected to the internet, although some briefly transmit encrypted unofficial results to county clerks’ offices after the polls close. That means you’d need to gain physical access to them to fiddle with their electronic innards.

But that presents many of the same hurdles as gaining access to tranches of ballots. As they must do with ballots, election officials are required to document who handled the voting machines as they move from storage to polling sites. The machines and other voting equipment — such as thumb drives containing ballot totals — must similarly be secured with tamper-evident seals.

Voting machines must also be tested for accuracy and be approved by the Elections Commission and the U.S. Elections Assistance Commission before they can be used in Wisconsin elections. Once approved, the machines are publicly tested before every election to make sure they’re functioning correctly. Any errors found must be corrected before they can be used in an election.

Even with those safeguards, Wisconsin is one of 37 states that require paper records of vote totals. That means if machines fail or are tampered with, election officials can return to the paper ballots or the paper tapes produced by the machines to double-check results.

If you’ve somehow managed to evade all these checks, there is one last one. After each general election, the Elections Commission selects 5% of municipalities — including at least one in each county — to hand-count the ballots and compare the results to what the machines produced. A separate audit is done on all voters to look for any who may have been ineligible, while the state also participates in joint audits with 29 other states and the District of Columbia to identify people who may have voted in more than one state.

Finally, to steal an election, you’d need to count on the collective failure of the career civil service and law enforcement personnel who scrutinize elections to miss all of this suspicious activity.

Some degree of fraud, errors and irregularities occurs with every election. Post-election audits routinely turn up a small number of voters who broke the rules by, say, submitting an absentee ballot and then going to the polls on Election Day to vote a second time. When they’re discovered, such cases are referred to prosecutors.

But authorities have so far found no evidence that such activity is any more widespread this year than in previous elections. They include U.S. Attorney William Barr, who earlier this month told the Associated Press his office had seen no evidence of fraud on a scale that could have changed the outcome of the election.

The United States Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, which works to protect the nation’s critical computer systems and is led by a Trump appointee, last month declared the November election “the most secure in American history.”

Put simply, the agency said, “There is no evidence that any voting system deleted or lost votes, changed votes, or was in any way compromised.”

Watch Now: Scenes from the polls on Election Day in Wisconsin

Wisconsin has lived up to expectations it would have outsized influence in the presidential election. See scenes from Election Day across the state. 

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