CBS 58 Investigates: Elections clerks at risk of cyber attack

CBS 58 Investigates: Elections clerks at risk of cyber attack

MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- Wisconsin elections officials will spend $1.1 million in election security grants to boost cybersecurity for clerks at the local level. A CBS 58 investigation found the money will be used to fix a variety of cybersecurity problems faced by local governments, as they prepare for the 2020 presidential election.

The U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee found Russia tried to attack every state’s election system during the 2016 campaign. The committee found cyber agents probed states for weaknesses, broke into Illinois’ voter registration database, and primed a social media bot network to cause chaos.

Since 2016, Wisconsin has taken many steps to harden its election infrastructure at the state level. But clerks in counties, cities, and villages run the elections at the local level. The state wants to bolster those clerks’ cybersecurity defenses, since they’re on the front lines of a potential elections attack.

There are over a thousand elections clerks in Wisconsin.

Wisconsin Municipal Clerks Association President Diane Coenen said, “We need everybody to be on the same level of security.”

A CBS-58 Investigation learned over 200 clerks use an outdated version of Windows software. Many have no money to upgrade, no I.T. department to support them, or even a taxpayer provided computer.

Coenen said, “They might be using their own system, you know, whatever they have.”

Coenen is also Oconomowoc’s City Clerk. Coenen said clerks face budget constrains in every jurisdiction, but smaller ones may have bigger funding problems.

Coenen said, “Do they fix a pothole, or do they buy a computer?”

It matters to your vote because it’s practically impossible for hackers to change election results. There are simply too many jurisdictions to break into and change tallies. But if hackers can break into a clerk’s computer and alter information such as voter addresses, precinct assignments, or candidates, the attack could prevent a voter from casting a ballot. On a large enough scale, that could swing an election.

Coenen said, “If it could be hundreds of voters, it could become a nightmare at the polls on Election Day.”

That’s why Wisconsin is spending $1.1 million to boost cybersecurity for elections clerks. The federal government also tests elections systems, but CBS-58 Investigates found only three counties in our viewing area that have signed up for them.

Milwaukee County Elections Commission Director Julietta Henry said, “Cybersecurity was not as prevalent as it is now.”

Henry said the County’s I.T. staff runs many preventative tests.

Henry said, “We have various types of phishing tests that are placed out there for all county employees. We have to go through various cyber security workshops, as well.”

On election night, when it comes time for the cities, villages, and towns to send their election results to her office, they use a secure password protected Internet connection.

Henry said, “You can knock on the door, but you won’t be able to get in.”

The clerks are not alone in the fight. The state keeps a cyber response team ready to respond to any potential attacks. It also issued clerks a physical key they must use to access the state’s voter registration database. Without it, they can’t get in, and neither should a cyber soldier.

Coenen said, “I never thought I’d have to worry about interference from other countries.”

None of these systems are supposed to be easy to get into. Someone can’t change a voter’s city without accessing both city databases, so there are built in roadblocks. Changes also raise red flags from the local level on up to the state.

Voters can also check their registration information in person at their clerk’s office or online at

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