Election Officials In Closely Divided Wisconsin Take Steps To Secure The Vote

Jan 25, 2020
Originally published on January 25, 2020 1:43 pm
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Wisconsin is known for both high-turnout elections and razor-thin margins. President Trump won the state by fewer than 23,000 votes. In 2020, it could be the pivotal state that decides the presidency, and that means Wisconsin could be a target for those who may want to disrupt the election. Maayan Silver from member station WUWM in Milwaukee has this report on how the state is preparing.

MAAYAN SILVER, BYLINE: There is about double the number of people than usual at this poll worker training in the city of West Allis in Milwaukee County - as people are taught how to handle absentee ballots.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: So this is what the envelope looks like.

SILVER: Carole Donovan - a chief inspector - is there, and says she and her workers take ballot security very seriously.

CAROLE DONOVAN: They are all put in sealed bags, immediately taken by me to City Hall, where they're always kept under lock and key.

SILVER: Since 2016, those old-school security measures have been supplemented with upgrades to newer systems like the state's voter registration database. City of Milwaukee Election Commissioner Neil Albrecht says for election officials, there's really one goal...

NEIL ALBRECHT: 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.

SILVER: The state's top election official, Meagan Wolfe, is all too aware that Democrats and Republicans view winning Wisconsin as key to winning the White House.

MEAGAN WOLFE: 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 defenses.

SILVER: Like a lot of states, Wisconsin has been working closely with the federal government on election security.

WOLFE: 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.

SILVER: 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 mean more than a database or results website getting penetrated.

WOLFE: 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.

SILVER: 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 here. It's a challenge, says Charles Stewart, who runs MIT's election data and science lab.

CHARLES STEWART: 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.

SILVER: On the flip side, that decentralization means one hack won't disrupt the whole state. Also, voters tend to have more confidence in elections run by friends and neighbors.

STEWART: And if you control for degrees of difficulty, it's kind of miraculous that - what happens in Wisconsin.

SILVER: Miraculous or not, voters are still on edge. Bela Roongta is a 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.

SILVER: An NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll out this week said the spread of misleading information ranked highest among voters fears about the 2020 election.

For NPR News, I'm Maayan Silver in Milwaukee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.