Robert Mueller, the special counsel who investigated Russian interference in the last presidential election, has been emphatic about the need to protect our democracy.
“It wasn’t a single attempt,” Mueller told a pair of House committees in Washington last month. “They are doing it while we sit here. And they expect to do it during the next campaign.”
So what’s the closely watched state of Wisconsin, which could decide the 2020 race, doing about it?
Hundreds of local clerks who oversee polling places across Wisconsin have outdated computer systems or aren’t installing security patches, the Associated Press reported Aug. 9. If those computers aren’t protected, they will create “tremendous risk” when logged into the state’s election system, Tony Bridges, the state’s election security lead, wrote in a memo to the Wisconsin Elections Commission. A cyber attack could expose confidential information, stop absentee ballots, destroy records and prevent display of election results.
“The strength or weakness of any one workstation could affect the security of the entire state’s elections infrastructure and the public’s confidence in the integrity of the Wisconsin elections,” Bridges wrote.
That sounds serious. Yet the partisan Wisconsin Elections Commission last week refused to fund a significant part of Bridges’ proposed solution.
The commission agreed to buy 25 computers for $30,000, not the 250 proposed by staff.
The commission wisely agreed to purchase software to test the vulnerability of computers that log into its system, which could cost $69,000 annually. It also authorized a technical support position that could cost $100,000, and an educational ad campaign at $341,000, the AP reported.
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What the commission rejected was a staff request for $300,000 for 250 loaner computers for local clerks. Instead, it authorized only 25 machines, with some commissioners quibbling over cost and contending local clerks who fail to upgrade on their own shouldn’t be rewarded with new computers.
We get their point, but the integrity of our election system is at stake here. Ensuring a fair presidential primary and general election next year is much more important than trying to save a few bucks.
Congress has been warned that there could be more foreign interference next year, when Wisconsin is expected to be a presidential swing state again, making its systems a bigger target.
Mueller’s lengthy report to Congress specifically cited Wisconsin as one of several battleground states that former Trump campaign manager (and now convicted felon and prison inmate) Paul Manafort discussed with a Russian political consultant during the 2016 race.
The Russian government targeted Wisconsin’s voter registration system in 2016. Luckily, the hackers didn’t gain access.
The Elections Commission, to its credit, subsequently installed more authentication requirements to its system. But it shouldn’t skimp on further enhancements. The state still has some of a $7 million federal grant to help it improve security.
Mueller, who ran the FBI for more than a decade, told Congress he’s seen many threats to American democracy during his long career.
“The Russian government’s effort to interfere in our election is among the most serious,” he warned.
Wisconsin must rise to the challenge with an intense and sweeping defense of next year’s votes. The Elections Commission should error on the side of safety, even if that requires more and better computers for local clerks at greater expense.