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Wisconsin election officials discuss security at state and local levels

NOW: Wisconsin election officials discuss security at state and local levels

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MADISON, Wis. (CBS 58) – The 2020 presidential election may be more than a year away, but efforts to ensure its integrity and security are currently happening.

Robert Mueller testified before Congress last week and when asked about Russian interference in the U.S. election he said, “it wasn’t a single attempt. They’re doing it as we sit here.”

The next day, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence released a report detailing findings about Russian meddling in the 2016 election. The report said agents, “efforts exploited the seams between federal authorities and capabilities, and protections for the states.”

While the federal government and agencies like the Department of Homeland Security work on fighting off foreign interference in cyberspace, the task also falls upon election officials at the state and local levels.

“We’ve been working on election security very intensely since 2016,” Reid Magney told CBS 58. Magney is the Public Information Officer for the Wisconsin Elections Commission and the agency oversees the election process for the state’s municipalities and counties.

There was no new information pertaining to Wisconsin and election interference in Mueller’s testimony or in the Senate report, according to Magney. But the Elections Commission is still actively preparing and examining areas of concern.

One of those areas is in boosting the IT resources for parts of the state. But overall, Magney said he’s confident in the state’s preparations on security.

“There are so many layers of both human and physical security around the electronics that go into voting,” Magney said. “Whether it’s the voting equipment, whether it’s our system for keeping track of voters; we have several different layers of security around that.”

“People should feel confident in that,” Magney added.

Milwaukee County Clerk George Christensen echoes that sentiment.

“We’re extremely confident,” Christensen said. “We’ve never had a breach or security issue in all the time that I’ve been here.”

Christensen says the county’s election server is a standalone system and is housed in a closed room that only IT staff and a select few high-level staff have access to. The system is not connected to the internet.

He adds that while he is confident in the county’s election security, preparations are always ongoing.

“You’re always concerned and you always want to be diligent,” Christensen said. “We constantly work with [the] Wisconsin Elections Commission, with our municipal clerks as well as with Homeland Security in order to make sure that we have the most up to date information and we’re ready for any sort of issue that may come.”

In August, Christensen and Magney will participate in an event put on by the Department of Homeland Security where officials will go over tabletop scenarios of potential hacking. They will learn what to look for and how to respond.

While there is a heavy emphasis on preparing security measures, some say what happens after people vote that’s just as important.

Karen McKim is a coordinator with Wisconsin Election Integrity, and election security advocacy group. The group’s concern focuses on the vulnerabilities of election technology, something that states have little control over.

“They are at the mercy of the voting machine companies,” McKim said.

One of Wisconsin Election Integrity’s primary goals is to expand election results auditing. It’s a process that McKim and the group believe is a simple, yet effective way to ensure the accuracy of results while also monitoring for potential tampering. It also does not rely on the election technology, instead getting information from paper ballots. The Wisconsin Elections Commission expanded that process last year, something McKim credits to the group’s pressure on the government.

McKim said it shouldn’t matter whether a security threat comes from a foreign government or a rogue insider and that election results auditing can combat both.

“[Election officials] can be as careful as they want to and their one and only safe guard against hacked election results is our paper ballots and using them during the county canvass  to make sure the results are right,” McKim said. “That’s what they have to do.”

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