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Wisconsin Election Commission investing in elections security
WEC Election Security Budget

WISCONSIN - The Wisconsin Election Commission (WEC) took up the topic of election security at their June 10 meeting. The main issue they hope to address in state election security is to implement security measures at the most local level, which analysis has shown to be the most vulnerable.

Commissioner Mark Thomsen asked WEC staff what the federal Department of Homeland Security and the Wisconsin Department of Administration's​ Division of Enterprise Technology (DET) had determined were the greatest risks for Wisconsin’s election security.

“Wisconsin has one of the most decentralized election administration systems in the nation, preventing a one-size-fits-all approach,” WEC Administrator Meagan Wolfe explained. “DET has determined that our weakest link is the local user of election systems.”

Wolfe said that DET’s top concerns are”

• secure e-mail addresses for clerks

• security compliant computer devices

• IT support and training for clerks

HAVA grant

On January 6, 2020, the U.S. Elections Assistance Commission (EAC) sent an email to WEC announcing Wisconsin’s Help America Vote Act (HAVA) anticipated grant award of $7,818,581 with a 20 percent match,” WEC’s Rob Kehoe told the commission. “The match means that over the next two years the state, and our municipalities and counties combined, would have to dedicate approximately $1.5 million toward election security activities.”

Kehoe said that WEC staff believes a two-phase approach to spending will ensure funding is used both to secure the 2020 fall elections and to address future, unanticipated security concerns.

“Much like the security funding made available to states in 2018, ahead of the General Election, we recommend that Phase One include spending necessary to address immediate election security needs prior to November 2020,” Kehoe explained. “For Phase Two funds, it is recommended that they be held in reserve to address security needs after November 2020.”

The near-term spending plan has two major components:

• sub grant for counties - $3,875,658

• continuation of 2019 sub grant for municipalities - $1,206,000

County sub grant

Counties will be required to submit any requests to WEC for sub grant funds by July 15. Each county will be eligible for a base grant of $35,000, and then $0.30 per voting age resident in their jurisdiction.

Sub grant funds can be used for activities that enhance election technology and make election security improvements. Allowable expenditures can include personnel, equipment and training. Federally designated categories for expenditures include cyber vulnerabilities; physical security; voter registration systems and management; election auditing; staff training; and communications.

Funds will be available to counties retroactive to January 1, 2020, to provide assistance in election security measures already implemented in 2020.

“To identify specific needs, counties should perform a deliberate risk assessment and vulnerability management process,” Kehoe said. “Not all counties have done this, and they can use grant funds for the purpose, and then additionally, to address any risks that come to light in the assessment.”

Locally, this would mean that counties would be eligible for up to the following amounts:

• Crawford: $38,933.30

• Vernon: $39,196.10

• Richland: $41,795.30

• Monroe: $45,550.10

• Grant: $47,707.10

Municipal sub grant

WEC staff also proposed renewing the 2019 Election Security sub grant program for municipalities that did not apply for the grant prior to the November 15, 2019 deadline. 

“There were 1,005 municipalities that did not apply for a grant,” Kehoe explained. “Clerks have reported to WEC many reasons for not applying for the initial grant. Some jurisdictions had compliant devices; others may not have used WisVote at the time of the grant application deadline.” 

Kehoe went on to explain that since the initial grant, COVID-19 has changed the way some clerks interact with election technology. Because of the increase in ballots being issued during in-person absentee and absentee by mail, many clerks now need to use the WisVote system to manage these requests more efficiently and securely. Other jurisdictions have also had to hire new staff or may have new clerks. 

“These jurisdictions may not have had a need for a grant in 2019 but are now in need due to the changing election security landscape,” Kehoe said. “Designating $1,206,000 will enable the WEC to provide all of these municipalities the full $1,200 sub grant if requested.”

Sub grant funds can be used to purchase security compliant computer devices, obtain IT support or security training for clerks. Municipalities can apply for the funds if they did not apply in the first round, or did not apply in one of the three categories in the first round.

The following amounts could be available:

• $600 for a security compliant computer

• $500 for IT support 

• $100 for training

Municipalities may request the grant using a request form available on the WEC website. The period to request sub grant funds will close on September 1, 2020. Once a request has been received, commission staff will provide a check or transfer funds directly through an electronic transfer of funds to each approved municipality. 

“It is likely, based on past behavior, that not all of the municipal grant funds will be applied for,” Kehoe told the commissioners. “

Discussion and motions

Commissioner Bob Spindell seemed quite pleased with the WEC staff’s proposals.

“I like the idea of circling back and reopening the 2019 grants,” Spindell said. “I think our goal is to help the clerks by making the paperwork easier.”

Commissioner Mark Thomsen expressed surprise that it had been so difficult to get municipalities to move toward having secure e-mail addresses and websites.

“Can’t we require municipalities to prove they have, or commit to obtaining a secure e-mail address in order to be eligible for the grant?” Thomsen asked.

Spindell agreed with Thomsen that grant eligibility would be tied to obtaining a secure e-mail address at a minimum.

Thomsen remarked that he was really not comfortable about holding back $2,736,923 of the total grant funds for “future unanticipated security risks,” and urged the commission to spend more of the funds sooner.

“If we can’t spend that reserved amount, then lets at least make sure that none of the municipal grant funds remain unspent,” Thomsen said. “I propose that we allocate any unspent municipal grant funds to the counties on a pro rate basis per eligible registered voter.”

Commissioner Dean Knudson agreed with Thomsen’s recommendation.

At the end of their discussion, the commission voted unanimously 6-0 for the following three motions:

Motion #1:The Commission directs WEC staff to administer a HAVA Election Security sub grant program to counties at the rate of $0.30 per voting-age resident plus $35,000, not to exceed a total cost of more than $3,835,830.

Motion #2:The Commission directs WEC staff to renew the administration of the Election Security sub grant to municipalities at the rate of up to $1,200 per eligible jurisdiction, not to exceed a total cost of more than $1,206,000. To be eligible for the sub grant funds, municipalities must have secure e-mails and websites, or provide a plan to implement them. If all funds available are not requested by September 1, 2020, then remaining funds will be allocated to the counties pro rata at $0.30 per voting age resident. The funds will be used for items either unfunded or underfunded in the county’s spending proposals for the county sub grant funds.

Motion #3:The Commission directs WEC staff to submit the 2020 HAVA Security Grant spending plan to the U.S. EAC outlining the two-phase approach outlined above.