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Wisconsin Elections head says reduced staff poses risks

A voter casts his ballot Feb. 21, 2017, at Our Savior's Lutheran Church in Oshkosh. (WLUK/Jerry Van Handel)

MADISON (AP) -- The head of Wisconsin elections wants the Legislature to approve hiring three additional staff, with two focused on bolstering security following news that the state's voting systems were targeted by Russian hackers.

A 28 percent reduction in staff since 2015 weakened the ability of elections workers to address voter safety and eroded fulfilling all other state and federal law requirements, Wisconsin Elections Commission Administrator Michael Haas said in a memo released Friday.

"The agency for an extended period of time has been operating with less than optimal staffing," Haas said in an interview. "We are falling behind with just our regular day-to-day responsibilities so we can be prepared for the 2018 election."

The staff reductions have led to numerous problems, Haas said, including:

  • delays in development of electronic poll books;

  • not addressing complaints against local election officials;

  • delays in updating voter information and outreach plans for the 2018 election; and

  • suspending audits on how accessible polling stations were to voters with disabilities in the spring election.

In his memo, Haas told the commission that additional problems could include:

  • an inability to help candidates in a timely manner;

  • not ensuring elections systems are as accurate and secure as possible;

  • less robust training of local election officials, leading to errors; and

  • reducing the ability to provide voter information on a broad scale as well as diminishing the ability to provide accurate and reliable election data.

The commission is meeting Monday to vote on whether to ask the Legislature to pass a bill authorizing the hiring of three additional staff, along with hiring more temporary workers, at a cost of about $452,000 over the next two years.

Two of the staff the commission wants to hire would be focused on election security issues, while a third would work on educating voters about such things as Wisconsin's voter identification requirement.

The call for more staff comes after Gov. Scott Walker signed a state budget in September that cut six Elections Commission positions. The Legislature had asked that five positions be funded, but Walker vetoed them. Since 2015, the commission's staff has been reduced from nearly 36 to nearly 26, a 28 percent cut.

Should the Legislature go along with Haas's call to pay for three more staff, Walker would have to agree. His spokesman Tom Evenson on Friday did not immediately return messages seeking comment.

Walker, when he vetoed the five positions, encouraged the commission to make greater use of temporary staff and contracted services. While Haas said the commission has had some success with temporary staff, he cautioned results using that approach have been uneven.

The commission "cannot risk the possibility" that temporary staff could give inaccurate information to a local election official or a voter with questions about photo ID requirements or their registration status, Haas said.

The vote on requesting more staff comes at the same meeting where the commission is to adopt a new election security plan in the wake of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security concluding Wisconsin's elections system had been targeted by Russia.

There is no evidence the state's elections systems were compromised, but the revelation that Wisconsin was targeted has led to officials bolstering its security plans.

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