Report: Need tighter security for Wisconsin election workers

·4 min read

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The security of election workers and equipment in battleground Wisconsin’s second-largest county isn't adequate in light of the threats that officials and workers are facing in a climate of lies and misinformation about supposed fraud, according to a committee report released Monday.

Local clerks don't have the resources they need to adequately protect workers and to securely store election equipment and materials, the Dane County Election Security Task Force reported.

“I’ve been to all these offices around the county, and access to the staff is quite easy. That needs to change. There needs to be some sort of barrier to protect staff,” Dane County Clerk Scott McDonell said during a news conference.

McDonell is requesting a new facility for elections administration in Dane County and the state's second-largest city, Madison.

Local elections officials around the country have reported being subjected to death threats and harassment due to conspiracy theories and misinformation following the 2020 presidential election, which former President Donald Trump has falsely claimed was stolen. A 2021 survey of elections officials by the Brennan Center for Justice found that one in three felt unsafe because of their job.

President Joe Biden carried Wisconsin by nearly 21,000 votes, a margin upheld by recounts, multiple court rulings, a nonpartisan audit and a conservative review. A GOP-led investigation by a former Wisconsin Supreme Court justice has also failed to uncover evidence that Trump won.

Madison City Clerk Maribeth Witzel-Behl, a member of the task force, said she has received multiple death threats. Other elections officials in the state have also been harassed.

The task force report recommended budgeting for clerks to add access controls, barriers and video surveillance to their offices, as well as putting elections officials through threat response training from the Dane County Sheriff’s Office. It also recommended a dedicated and secure workspace in Dane County and in Madison, noting that during the state’s February primary, some elections staff were working on non-sensitive tasks in the hallways of the City-County Building.

“Our main conclusion is that the current physical infrastructure of election administration in Dane County and municipalities in Dane County is inadequate for a function identified as ‘critical infrastructure.’ Resolving this will require attention and resources,” said Ken Mayer, the task force's chair.

In addition to limited space, McDonell raised concerns about the physical security of the City-County Building. “There’s too many access points, it’s too easy to get in and out,” he said. To limit security risks, the Dane County clerk’s office has stopped processing marriage licenses in person and added plexiglass barriers.

The task force's report said that on the day of a Homeland Security review of the city and county clerks' offices in March, a person wearing camouflage and a facemask entered the city clerk’s office with a camera and attempted to open multiple locked doors. The person left before law enforcement arrived and was never identified.

McDonell said Monday that he’ll be making a budget request for a new facility for storage and elections administration that meets clerks’ needs “as soon as possible.” Other Dane County municipalities have begun making their own upgrades.

Although McDonell and Mayer say there have been no known physical attacks on election workers or equipment in Dane County, it’s not uncommon for municipalities to store voting equipment in general storage areas where access isn’t limited to clerks. It’s also not uncommon for voting equipment to be at risk from weather and humidity. According to McDonell, Madison has had to replace its voting equipment twice due to flood damage. He said he hopes a new facility will offer climate-controlled storage.

If security concerns aren't addressed at election administration offices, the task force is concerned that recruiting and retaining clerks and election workers will become even more difficult.

“There has been tremendous turnover since 2020,” said McDonell.

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Harm Venhuizen is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Follow Harm on Twitter.

Harm Venhuizen, The Associated Press

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