Voters Worry About Ballot Security, Officials Say All's Well

Aug 13, 2018

Tuesday is primary election day in Wisconsin.

With races for governor, U.S. Senate and other offices, turnout is expected to be the highest since the presidential election in November 2016. Donald Trump's win in that election spurred a lot of national concern over election tampering. While some voters still aren’t sure the system is secure, Wisconsin officials say the public shouldn't be worried about ballot security.

After early voting last week at the Zeidler Municipal Building in downtown Milwaukee, Anthony Brown said he considers hacking of voting machines a legitimate threat. “Anything that somebody can access from the other side of the world — I mean anywhere — any computer-oriented person can dictate what’s going on inside of that machine," Brown said.

Another early voter, Sienna Bickham, said hacking is especially a concern in close elections. “I’m never very confident in the voting unless it’s like some sort of landslide where we knew who the candidate was going to be outright, I guess,” Bickham said.

Skepticism about the integrity of voting is not something election officials like to hear as they get ready for the big day. So, those officials are speaking up.

Election Commission Executive Director Neil Albrecht said the machines are tamper proof. “They are held in a locked and secure space until election day, when the poll workers arrive and then everything comes out and the site is set up for voting," he said.

A city worker rolls a cart of signs toward a truck bound for the some of the cities 190 polling places.
Credit Chuck Quirmbach

Albrecht said in the last year or so, other safeguards have been added. Election officials around the state have been educated on cyber security for the voter registration database. Soon, city and county officials may have to use a second password to get into the system.

He said Wisconsin voters should have no fear. “So I would say to the residents of the city and the state as a whole — your votes will be counted, and you should feel 100 percent confident in that," Albrecht promised.

The New York-based Brennan Center for Justice said Wisconsin complies with many best practices of cyber-security. But the Center's Liz Howard said hackers are ramping up, too.

Last year's annual DEF CON, a national conference for what are known as "white hat" or ethical hackers, had its first voting machine hacking exhibit. "The headlines during this event and after this event indicated these white hat hackers were able to hack the voting equipment within two hours," Howard said.

She said the hacking exhibit at this year's DEF CON, which ended Sunday, was even larger.

The Brennan Center and local groups are urging the state to require more of what are called risk-limiting audits. These audits count paper ballots used or generated in elections, to make sure those vote totals match ones from voting machines.

Karen McKim of Wisconsin Election Integrity urges people to contact county clerks and the Wisconsin Elections Commission to demand more checking of the paper ballots that are cast, before results from voting machines are certified. "And just tell them you would have more confidence in voting and in elections if the elections results were verified accurate before they were declared final," McKim said.

The Elections Commission will take up the topic at a meeting next month.

Commission spokesperson Reid Magney says more than 100 polling places in Wisconsin are randomly selected to count paper ballots by hand after every November election. He acknowledges those audits are not done before certification of results. "But I think if we found some sort of major error as a result of voting equipment audit after the results were certified, I don't think the public would stand for that and I think we would find a way to do something about it," Magney said.

Magney said the state has told county clerks how they can voluntarily do random audits after Tuesday’s election and before certification. The state has already started investing some of the $7 million in election security funds it recently received from the federal government for that purpose, he said.

But could lingering questions about ballot security affect turnout for Tuesday, or this fall? Some political scientists say the idea of voting machine hacking or fraud may discourage more people from voting.

Doug Judy also voted early last week. He said that worry may be offset this year, by a strong desire to vote, and change the direction of the state and nation. "I'm hoping this wakes some people up and they show up at the ballot box," Judy said.

The polls open Tuesday morning at 7. Find your local polling station.

Support is provided by Dr. Lawrence and Mrs. Hannah Goodman for Innovation reporting.