Wisconsin’s Election Security Council sees the gorilla.

The first meeting of the Wisconsin Elections Commission’s new Election Security Council was both reassuring and scary.

First, the good news. I fear WEC created the council more to promote belief in security than security itself. I’m still not sure, but if that is WEC’s intention, the members of the new council don’t seem to share it.

They uniformly exhibited a desire for actual security. Understandably, they showed some legitimate interest in appearances, but their primary concern seemed to be for real security.

Hang on to that idea as I describe the bad news. I do think intention matters.

The second piece of good news is that the members did not seem to share—even slightly—WEC’s hesitance to include voters on the council.

A bit of background: the state election agency’s longstanding attitude toward citizen participation is not normal. After 30 years working as a state bureaucrat in three agencies and auditing dozens of others for the legislature, I know “normal.” Even agencies running unpopular programs like septic-tank regulation or state-forest timber harvest seek citizen participation as a routine matter of course.

In contrast, the WEC runs a popular function—people like elections—and yet they hide under their desks when someone mentions voter participation. I’ve never understood why; it makes no sense.

Fortunately, the council members know normal. When WEC administrator Meagan Wolfe asked whether they wanted to add voter representatives to the council, the members’ brief discussion can be summarized: “Well, duh.”

The representative from the Wisconsin Counties Association, whose name I didn’t catch, pointed out that legislative advisory councils routinely include representatives from citizen groups. Then, after Wolfe said she would bring a detailed proposal for selecting voter representatives to the next meeting, Governor Evers’ representative, Jenny Dye, said that would be too late. The council’s work was “already short on public input,” she said, and it wouldn’t do to have the public members miss the first two meetings. WEC agreed to work out the details and get voters’ representatives to the table by the council’s December meeting.

Okay, now the bad news.

The level of naivete in the room was frightening. Among the utterances that made me shudder:

  • Hearing the representative from the Wisconsin Statewide Intelligence Center list the threats to look for. Was I the only one in the room who noticed his list contained only external threats? He seemed unaware that insider corruption (e.g., a rogue employee of a voting-machine company) is the single greatest threat to our voting-machine software—one our election clerks have no reliable defense against.
  • Hearing Mike Davis from the League of Wisconsin Municipalities open his question with “I don’t know much about elections administration, but…” Yikes! Municipalities run Wisconsin’s elections! (On the other hand: his ‘but…’ led into a question about what we do with our paper ballots—showing good intuitive sense about how we could be securing our elections from that rogue programmer or service technician.)

Ignorance doesn’t have to be a problem. No one was born knowing this stuff. They can learn.

However, WEC’s conduct of the meeting gave me some concern that the council members might not get the education they need.

Put it this way: If you convened a new council to get advice on election security, how would you have opened the first meeting? If it had been me, I would have started by describing the basic elements of a secure election system. Then, I would have given the council a quick overview of where Wisconsin has weak spots or holes, where work is needed.

Instead, WEC staff presented a rosy overview of all the good things that are in place. When they were done, I’m guessing some council members were wondering why they were there, given that things are as good as they can be and cannot possibly be any better.

Wolfe wasn’t painting this rosy picture by making stuff up. She was leaving stuff out—specifically, stuff relating to voting machines.

One fact is critical to understanding election security: Two separate systems must be secured. (See the chart below). These two systems have practically no overlap. They have different creators and different owners. They operate on different computers, managed by different agencies. They face different threats and require different safeguards.

WisVote–the voter-registration system–is secure, thanks to the good, hard work of the state elections agency. Security for the vote-tabulation system–that is, our voting machines–is closer to an honor system.

Yet Wolfe danced over the tabulation system so lightly I’m not even sure she said the words “voting machine.” For example, one of her Powerpoint slides listed the steps in an “End-to-end Election Administration System.” The list went right from “prepare the poll lists” to “report results to the State.” I wonder whether any of the council members noticed the missing step: “Count the votes.”

A rosy picture cannot, after all, include the rats’ nest of security threats that should concern us most.

I’ve seen this tunnel-vision focus on WisVote security from WEC staff many times before. They’re spending all the federal election-security money on it. Whenever they are asked about “election security” (with or without specific reference to voting machines), they respond by describing safeguards that protect only the WisVote system. Dozens of reporters have fallen for it.

But for some reason, I didn’t expect it to be on full display in the meeting today. I was thinking that creating an advisory council was something like going to a therapist. You want help, right? So be honest about the problems that bring you there.

(Spoiler alert. If you’ve never taken the selective perception test where you watch a video and count the number of times a white-shirted team passes a basketball, do that before reading further. I don’t want to spoil anyone’s opportunity to experience this phenomenon firsthand.)

I’m not a mind reader and so cannot say how much of this relentless tunnel vision on WisVote security is strategic, and how much stems from the fact that tabulation-system security is simply not the WEC’s job.

But as I listened, I started to see WisVote as WEC’s white-shirted basketball team. They are so intently focused on it—absolutely, fully engrossed—that they cannot see the gorilla that is the tabulation system.

Here’s my best hope, and I think it’s a real possibility: I think this council might be able to provide WEC staff with more guidance and education than they realize they need.

After WEC staff had shared all the lovely information about WisVote security, they turned the microphone over to the council members. They asked each member to say a few words about their organization and describe how they see their role in election security over time.

The county clerks went first—and ignored the instructions. Instead, they immediately started to talk about voting-machine security and the fact that they are not getting the IT support they need. Then the League of Municipalities representative popped in with his question about the role of paper ballots in securing election results.

The WEC staff may not be able to see the gorilla, but it was the first and only thing council members wanted to talk about.

In summary, this seems like a good bunch of sensible people. In addition, on my way out, I had a quick but solid discussion with WEC Assistant Administrator Richard Rydecki about some nuts-and-bolts details regarding the sort of risk-limiting audits that could work to secure Wisconsin election results.

So progress is underway, and I’m okay with that.

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