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 has 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.”
But Republican Gov. Scott Walker is actually cutting the commission. He signed a state budget in September that cut six Elections Commission positions. The Legislature had asked that five positions be funded with federal money, but Walker vetoed them.
During his years in office, Walker has continually cut government services to pay for tax cuts to the state’s wealthiest individuals, many of whom are his donors. Some corporations with ties to Walker and Legislative Republicans have been given millions of dollars in state handouts with the understanding that they would produce jobs in return.
But only a small fraction of jobs has been produced, and the companies have not had to offer evidence of them. Many companies have defaulted on their loans and no action has been taken to collect them. And no records exist for many of the loans.
Since 2015, the election commission's staff has been reduced from nearly 36 to nearly 26, a 28-percent cut.
The existing staff reductions already 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 paying for hiring 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.
Should the Legislature go along with Hass'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.
Louis Weisberg contributed to this story.
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