Election Security in Wisconsin

NEW: Read Wisconsin's 2019 Elections Security Planning Report

Wisconsin’s election systems are secure thanks to the Wisconsin Elections Commission’s strong partnerships with federal and state agencies and local election officials. This page briefly summarizes the WEC’s election security efforts and provides links to more information.

Election security has always been a concern, but those concerns became heightened in 2016 with news of hacking attempts of state voter registration systems around the country. According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the state of Wisconsin’s online defenses were scanned twice in July of 2016 by “Russian government cyber actors” who did not breach the system. To put that in context, state’s computer systems are scanned approximately 9 million times a year. The Commission has found no evidence that Wisconsin’s election systems have ever been compromised. You can learn more about the scanning attempts here.

In October 2016 the WEC published its first manual for clerks regarding contingency planning and election security. Since then, the WEC has been developing extensive plans for Election Security Preparation and Incident Prevention, Election Security Incident Response, and Election Security Communications. 

In May 2018, the WEC launched an ambitious election security training program for county and municipal election officials, based on training our staff received earlier in the year at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

Wisconsin has two main elections systems: voter registration and vote counting. The voter registration system is very centralized and mostly online. The vote counting system is very decentralized and mostly offline. 

Voter Registration

Since 2006, Wisconsin has had a statewide voter registration system, now known as WisVote. That system is hosted on servers owned by the state and protected by our partners at the Department of Administration’s Division of Enterprise Technology (DET).

WisVote was developed by our staff in 2015 using Microsoft Dynamics CRM, an enterprise-class platform which ensures constant security updates. We launched WisVote in 2016.

WisVote has approximately 3,000 users, primarily the clerks in Wisconsin’s 1,852 municipalities and 72 counties and their employees. Users of the system receive extensive online training, including security training. Users have access only to voter records in their jurisdiction, limiting the potential for damage in the event an authorized user’s credentials were stolen or of unauthorized actions by an authorized user.

WisVote gives clerks the tools they need to maintain their local voter registration lists securely, but it is also a complete election management system.

Since launching WisVote, the WEC has made several upgrades to enhance the system’s security:

  • The data in WisVote is encrypted on our servers and between the servers and users, so in the unlikely event of a breach, any data stolen would be unusable.
  • A new WisVote access policy, effective July 23, 2018, requires all users to complete a series of electronic learning modules focused on computer security best hygiene practices. New users must complete security training before gaining access to the system and existing users were required to complete the training prior to the November 2018 election.
  • Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA) was implemented before the November 2018 General Election, requiring clerks to use a third identification factor in addition to their username and password to gain access to the system.
  • WEC is upgrading its existing monitoring tools to alert staff of any suspicious activity within the WisVote system.
  • In 2018, WEC completed a risk and vulnerability assessment conducted in conjunction with U.S. Department Homeland Security and the Wisconsin Department of Administration – Division of Enterprise Technology (DET).  The assessment found no evidence of any unauthorized access to Wisconsin’s elections systems.  
  •  In addition to the risk and vulnerability assessment, WEC has been receiving regular Cyber Hygiene Scans from DHS since 2016.

Electronic poll books (EPB) are being introduced gradually in Wisconsin by clerks who are adopting the Badger Book EPB system developed by the WEC.  Badger Books became available to municipal clerks for the first time in 2018. Wisconsin EPBs are not connected to the Internet and must have a paper back-up.

Vote Counting

Every ballot in Wisconsin is either cast on paper or has a paper back-up:

  • 85 percent are cast on optical-scan paper ballots
  • 5 percent are cast on hand-count paper ballots
  • 10 percent are cast on touch-screen voting equipment that has a voter-verifiable paper audit trail. In the event of a recount or audit, the paper record is used.

Municipalities, often in consultation with counties, decide what kind of electronic voting equipment to use for tabulating ballots. They may only purchase voting equipment that has been tested and approved by both the U.S. Election Assistance Commission and the Wisconsin Elections Commission. Systems from three vendors (ES&S, Dominion and Clear Ballot) have been approved for use in Wisconsin.

Voting equipment in Wisconsin may not be connected to the Internet and the computers used to program them must be hardened systems, which means they must be single-purpose computers with no unnecessary software, and unable to connect to the Internet. Most larger counties program their own voting equipment while smaller counties tend to rely on voting equipment vendors for programming.

State law requires municipal clerks to publicly test voting equipment for logic and accuracy before each election. Voting equipment memory devices are secured in the machines with tamper-evident seals.

Most ballots are counted at the polling place, including absentee ballots which are processed throughout Election Day and fed into polling-place scanners. A few large municipalities, including Milwaukee, count absentee ballots at a central location and those absentee ballots are also fed into scanners that record and tabulate votes.  Members of the public can observe the counting of ballots at both polling places and central absentee locations.

After the polls close at 8 p.m. on Election Day, voting equipment is switched into reporting mode to print an official results tape. Members of the public can be present to hear the results read aloud and to view the tapes.

On Election Night, official results in the form of paper tapes and electronic memory devices are transported to the municipal clerk’s office. Depending on the technology available, some polling places may transmit unofficial results to the county electronically via a hard-wired dial-up modem or a cellular wireless modem, but most use hand delivery or phone in the unofficial results to the county clerk’s office.

County clerks compile unofficial results from reporting units within the county. Some use computer programs supplied by their voting equipment vendors while others use spreadsheets. Some use a reporting function within the WEC’s Canvass Reporting System, which provides them with reports they can post on their websites. County clerks are required to post unofficial election results to their websites within two hours of receiving results from the municipalities.

State law does not require the Wisconsin Elections Commission to have a centralized system for collecting and reporting unofficial Election Night results. Traditionally, that role has been fulfilled by the Associated Press and other news organizations, which gather unofficial results from county clerks in person, by telephone or electronically.
Official results are certified by county boards of canvassers, comprised of the county clerk and two members of the public from opposite political parties. They must meet by the Tuesday after the election to open and publicly examine the returns. County canvassers have 10 days after the election to certify and deliver a statement of canvass to the state using the Canvass Reporting System.

Recounts in Wisconsin are not automatic. After completion of the canvass, a losing candidate whose total votes were within 1 percent of the winner’s vote total may petition for a recount.   There are different deadlines and thresholds depending on the office

After the deadline for requesting a recount passes (or there is a recount), the Wisconsin Elections Commission reviews and certifies the results.

Post-Election Audits

After each November election, state law requires the WEC to direct an audit of every type of voting equipment used in the state.  You can read the audit results here and learn more about the audit process.

At its September 25, 2018 meeting, the WEC enhanced election security by approving a significant expansion of post-election audits to ensure the integrity of voting systems.

WEC staff randomly selected 185 wards across the state to conduct audits. Municipal clerks for the selected wards were notified and received instructions on how to conduct the audits. Wisconsin has 12 different makes and models of voting equipment in use, and each type was audited at least five times. At least one ward in each of the 72 counties was selected, but no municipality was selected for more than two audits. Audits were required to be completed by November 28, several days before the deadline for the WEC certified results on Monday, December 3.

The purpose of the audit is to ensure that voting equipment used in Wisconsin is accurately counting ballots according to federal standards, which is 1 error in 500,000 ballots. These audits are usually completed after certification of the results. 

The Commission has also approved procedures for voluntary post-election audits that counties may conduct as part of the county board of canvassers process before they certify results in November. Current state law does not permit the WEC to order counties to conduct post-election audits.

Post-election audits may help the public to have the same level of confidence in local election officials and boards of canvass that the WEC has with respect to election results. Post-election audits help showcase the accuracy with which votes are counted in Wisconsin. In the unlikely event that the post-election audit reveals a discrepancy or error, mistakes in the tabulation/counting votes process can be identified and corrected prior to the certification of election results.

2019 Election Security Planning Report

The Wisconsin Elections Commission has worked to examine all aspects of security in relation to Wisconsin’s election administration technology and laws and drafted a comprehensive plan to document the coordination between the WEC and other election security partners.  Wisconsin’s election systems are secure thanks to the Wisconsin Elections Commission’s strong partnerships with federal and state agencies, as well as with local election officials and the voters of Wisconsin.  The plan exists to detail the WEC’s election security preparation and progress over the past two years, and steps WEC staff will pursue in the future to continue to keep Wisconsin’s elections secure.  The plan is broken into two separate sections and can be located on our reports page.  

The first section of the plan concerns election security preparation and incident prevention.  This section describes the roles that federal, state, and local election partners play in Wisconsin’s election system.  The various levels of government are further broken down into their various organizations and agencies that exist at that level, and details some of the potential resources that originate from the respective agencies.  Local elections officials can use this section of the plan to determine what resources they can use to secure devices used in their offices, trainings available to increase election security knowledge, and resources from higher levels of government that could be used in an election security event.

The second section of the plan contains election security incident response guidelines and a communications guide.  The section is divided among the different levels of government and includes short descriptions of the role that level of government plays in Wisconsin’s elections.  This section includes mock election security incident situations and suggested responses and communication efforts.  Local elections officials can use this section to create or update their existing election security contingency plans, and to see the importance of communicating any incidents to the proper authority.

Due to the changing security landscape, WEC staff updates the Election Security Plan regularly to ensure it contains the most up-to-date information.  The WEC will continue these updates ahead of 2020.