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Thursday - April 19, 2018 1:37 am

Wisconsin Elections Commission approves spending on security

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MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The Wisconsin Elections Commission on Wednesday unanimously approved moving forward with tapping a $7 million federal grant to hire additional staff and enhance security protections ahead of the fall elections.

The grant under the Help America Vote Act comes after the U.S. Department of Homeland Security said “Russian government cyber actors” tried unsuccessfully before the 2016 election to gain access to a Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development system as they looked for vulnerabilities.

Federal and state officials have said Wisconsin’s elections systems were not compromised, but the state and Elections Commission have been trying to bolster protections quickly in advance of the Aug. 14 primary and Nov. 6 general election.

The commission voted to proceed with hiring up to six new staffers, although exactly how many and in what positions will be determined later. It also backed going ahead with purchasing multi-factor authentication software to improve security in Wisconsin’s voter registration database accessed by clerks and other election officials, and contracting with information technology specialists to address immediate security needs.

The two IT contracts would be no more than $225,000 each while creating the multi-factor authentication process — where users of the voter database would have to enter a password and then a second factor, like a randomly generated number sent by email — is to cost no more than $200,000. Such a system is seen as a strong deterrent to hackers.

Commission Chairman Mark Thomsen said the enhancements approved Wednesday were “much needed steps” to ensure Wisconsin’s elections are secure and modernized. Thomsen said he hoped the multi-factor authentication software would be in place before the August primary.

Additional spending may target the needs of nearly 2,000 municipal election clerks, Thomsen said.

“This is a work in progress,” he said.

Among the roles the commission is contemplating creating is a staffer who would be dedicated to managing IT projects to help meet security obligations, a security trainer to help support local elections officials, and a specialist who would be dedicated to protecting and maintaining the voter registration database.

Commissioners said they wanted to move quickly to enact the highest priority statewide security enhancements before the election, while also gathering feedback from election clerks and the public about other needs.

Before any of the money can be spent, Gov. Scott Walker’s administration must give approval to release the grant funds to the commission. The commission lost six positions last year after Walker vetoed spending for five of them and the Legislature decided to cut another.

Steve Michels, a spokesman for Walker’s Department of Administration, said approval to access the grant money would be approved.

Receiving the nearly $7 million federal grant requires the state to contribute about $350,000, for a total of $7.3 million.

Other steps to bolster security are also in the works.

In May or June, Homeland Security will run a two-week risk vulnerability assessment in Wisconsin to simulate hacking attempts on the state election system from inside and outside the network. That will include sending simulated malicious emails, known as phishing, to track email activity.

Associated Press

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