As the 2020 presidential election draws nearer, Wisconsin finds itself in a newly-minted battleground status. In 2016 President Trump became the first Republican to capture Wisconsin’s 10 electoral votes since Ronald Reagan, yet Democrats swept statewide offices during the 2018 midterms. The state is sure to be a common campaign target throughout the next 14 months. But after reports of foreign election hacking and interference caused nationwide concern, many fear that Wisconsin could also be a target for cyber attacks on voting systems. 

A memo by Tony Bridges, chief security officer of the Wisconsin Elections Commission, found that many local clerks log on to the state election system using outdated computer software, such as Windows XP and Windows 7, and called for the purchase of updated software and machines. Technology website Motherboard also reported that several voting machines in Wisconsin, as well as fellow swing states Florida and Michigan, had been hooked up to the Internet for months, despite the machines’ manufacturer cautioning against this because of possible security threats. 

While a statewide test in which all local clerks had to log into WisVote found five using Windows XP and 600 more using Windows 7, Bridges’ proposal for funds was later scaled back, as the state does not have a firm enough idea of how great the need for new technology actually is among municipalities, according to Associated Press.

Wisconsin’s new voter registration system, WisVote, has undergone numerous security upgrades and updates since its implementation in 2016, such as risk assessments and security training modules for all users. Local machines are tested for security on a regular basis. Also, there is a new requirement of multi-factor identification in order to access the system. Prior to the 2018 midterms, all clerks received FIDO keys to be plugged into their computers when logging on, in addition to their username and password.

“Say somebody got a hold of my password, they still couldn’t log in without having something like this,” said Polk County Clerk Sharon Jorgenson. “Everybody that’s a user on WisVote would have to have one of these. If they don’t have it, they don’t get logged in.” A verification code transmitted through the phone, Jorgenson says, is a back-up plan.

Jorgenson said that the Sequoia Edge and Insight machines used by local clerks within the county do not hook to the Internet, nor can they transmit results via the Web or the phone. 

“All the voting information stays with the machine and on a results cartridge. At the end of the night we print out the results, nothing is tied to the Internet,” said Debbie Swanson, clerk and treasurer for Farmington. 

After printing off poll tapes, local clerks will relay their town’s voting results to Jorgenson via phone, email or fax. She acknowledged that some clerks in Wisconsin used voting machines capable of transmitting results through the Internet, and that this method may appear more convenient time-wise.

“It does cut their work time down considerably,” she said. “I might be here till midnight, and they’re here for an hour.”

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