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Panel to debate how to spend $7.8M election security grant

February 26, 2020 GMT

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin election officials plan to debate Thursday how to spend a new $7.8 million election security grant, the second major influx of federal dollars to help local clerks fend off hackers in two years.

The U.S. Elections Assistance Commission announced in early January that Wisconsin would receive a the grant if it can produce a $1.6 million match. Wisconsin Elections Commission spokesman Reid Magney said the commission will pull the match from within its existing budget. The commission must submit a spending plan to the EAC by April.

The commission plans to discuss a wide range of options during a meeting Thursday in Madison, including sub-grants for local authorities or purchasing expensive technology for them, such as the Albert Sensor, an intrusion detection system many larger cities and counties in the U.S. use. Initial costs for hardware and installation runs about $9,000 with additional fees for maintenance.

Other ideas range from providing technical support for local clerks who lack IT departments; creating a campaign to communicate with voters; upgrading local clerks’ laptops and computers; upgrade firewalls; and establishing data back-up system.

Still more options include helping local clerks obtain a government email address with built-in security features; buying new voting equipment; and upgrading local clerks’ election management systems to including new security features such as encrypted data storage.

The WEC received a $7 million grant in 2018 to bolster election security.

The commission has used some of that money to develop a public relations campaign designed to tamp down rumors about vulnerabilities. Other funding from the grant has gone to create an app to ensure that the security status of every computer that connects to the state’s voter registration database can be checked before access is granted. All 684 jurisdictions that connect to the database have now installed the app, according to commission documents prepared for Thursday’s meeting. About 300 other local jurisdictions that can’t access the database directly have installed the app voluntarily.

The grant also has gone to purchase loaner computers for clerks still using Windows 7. Security upgrades for that operating system ended in January. According to commission documents, 98% of clerks’ systems are up-to-date and have no serious security concerns.

People familiar with the briefing have said U.S. election security officials told members of the House intelligence committee during a recent closed-door hearing that the Russian government was looking to help President Donald Trump win re-election. Trump has dismissed U.S. intelligence agencies’ assessment that Russia has interfered in elections on his behalf.

Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders has said U.S. officials told him in January about Russian efforts to boost his chances against Trump.

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