Elections cyber threats

Voters file in and out of the Olbrich Gardens polling location during the spring election. New state staff positions to help secure elections from cyber threats remain unfilled and some say it's critical the positions are filled soon.

Six new state positions to help secure Wisconsin elections from cyber threats remain vacant months after being created, and members of the Elections Commission say Gov. Scott Walker’s administration has been the holdup to filling the jobs.

It’s now clear the positions won’t be filled before the Aug. 14 primary election. At least one commissioner and a Democratic state legislative leader say it’s critical that the roles are filled by the November midterms.

National security officials have warned that malicious cyber actors, including those tied to the Russian government, this year may reprise or intensify their attacks on U.S. election systems.

The bipartisan state Elections Commission voted in April to create and fill the six staff positions, in addition to its existing 25.75 positions, as part of preparing for the 2018 elections. All six jobs have some election-security duties and three are focused on it: two are in elections IT and one provides security training to local election workers.

In May, the commission gave Walker’s Department of Administration information about the positions so it could fill them. The department handles human resources functions, including hiring, for agencies across state government.

So far, the hiring hasn’t happened. Mark Thomsen, a Democrat on the commission, said there’s urgency to fill the positions; he hoped that would be done by the Aug. 14 primary election and well ahead of the Nov. 6 general election.

Commission chairman Dean Knudson, a former Republican state lawmaker, also said the ball is in the DOA’s court.

“We want (the new positions) filled as soon as possible,” Knudson said. “When you’re creating a new position, it never happens as fast as you’d like.”

Department of Administration spokesman John Dipko said in a statement Friday that the department experienced some staff turnover in June but now is working “expeditiously” to fill the elections positions. Dipko said the department expects to post at least two of them next week.

“We expect the positions to be filled well in advance of the November general election, which we’ve understood was the intended vision” for them, Dipko said.

Elections commission spokesman Reid Magney said the agency is confident it can secure elections with its existing staff. But if the new positions stay unfilled, other tasks that are lower priority may be delayed, Magney said.

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“The Wisconsin Elections Commission is fully capable of running a secure election on Aug. 14 with our current staff,” Magney said. “We had hoped to have new staff on board before the partisan primary so they would have the benefit of experiencing an election day before the general election in November, but that is not essential.”

Thomsen said the recent indictments by U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller lend more urgency to the state’s election-security efforts. The indictments charge Russian intelligence officers with cyber attacks aimed to influence the 2016 U.S. elections, including successful hacking of a state board of elections — the state is not identified in the indictment — as well as an election vendor and Democratic National Committee emails.

Russian government cyber actors tried to access Wisconsin’s state IT systems in 2016 but weren’t able to do so, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security revealed last year.

“We’ve seen the recent Mueller indictment and the Russians’ ability to deconstruct our infrastructure,” Thomsen said, adding, “as a commissioner, I’m concerned with what is happening.”

Democratic Assembly Leader Gordon Hintz, in an interview Thursday, questioned why the Walker administration hasn’t taken election security more seriously.

“There’s no reason why we shouldn’t expect more (hacking) attempts,” said Hintz, D-Oshkosh. “Why is this such a low priority?”

Dipko said the department’s Division of Enterprise Technology works with the Elections Commission and federal agencies to guard against cyber threats.

“The administration works proactively and aggressively to ensure our elections systems remain secure,” Dipko said.

Walker last year vetoed a plan approved by Republican and Democratic lawmakers, as part of the state budget, to fill five elections staff positions. Walker said then that the commission “has been operating effectively with fewer staff.”

The elections commission moved ahead anyway earlier this year after landing a $7 million federal grant to pay for the new staff positions.

Another measure the commission approved in April to boost the cybersecurity of the state’s voter-registration database also will not be done by the primary election, according to Magney. It calls for implementing multi-factor authentication for users of the state’s voter registration database. That should be done by the end of August, he said.

Capital W: Plug in to Wisconsin politics

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