Our Democracy May Rest on Wisconsin. Is Wisconsin Ready?

As the 2020 presidential campaign begins to come into focus, there is increased attention to not only who will emerge as the Democratic candidate, but also on how Donald Trump is polling. Regardless of either point, a good case can be made that the only states which will not replicate their 2016 election outcomes are the three that swung Trump into the presidency – Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.

Digging into the numbers, it appears that Democrats have a chance of taking back both Pennsylvania and Michigan. Both states have large populations of suburban women – a group that supported Hillary Clinton at much lower levels than predicted, and that seems to be expressing strong anti-Trump viewpoints. Given this, it would make it difficult for Trump to recreate his victory there, especially if traditional Democratic voters such as African Americans turn out at higher levels. However, even if Democrats retake Pennsylvania and Michigan and hold all of the other states the party won in 2016, if Trump wins Wisconsin again, he would be re-elected by one electoral vote.

Wisconsin’s demographics make it a bigger challenge for Democrats than Michigan or Pennsylvania. The black population in Wisconsin is considerably smaller than in Pennsylvania or Michigan. Moreover, the percentage of white, non-college educated voters in Wisconsin – Trump’s core demographic – is much larger than in the other two states. In addition, the suburban population of Milwaukee,  is more conservative-leaning than its counterparts in Michigan and Pennsylvania.

Anyone who believes another four years of Trump represents a major threat to our democracy has to worry about Wisconsin – that includes not only which Democratic candidate is best positioned to carry the state, but also the security surrounding Wisconsin’s election process. Therefore, if you believe that the Russians have designs on interfering with our elections, as many government officials have warned, you can be sure the Russians are focused on what they can do to influence the outcome in Wisconsin.

There are many issues that make the state vulnerable, as outlined in a study by the University of Michigan’s Walter Mebane and Matt Bernhard. Like most states, much of the execution of elections is in the hands of local county clerks and precinct administrators, and their actions to protect against election manipulation are critical. Further complicating matters is Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s opposition to federal support for resources to help ensure greater integrity in the 2020 elections, preventing these local governments from obtaining the resources needed.

Key hurdles the state is facing include:

1. Older touch screen machines which do not involve a voter first filling out a paper ballot. While most of Wisconsin’s voting machines use optical scans of paper ballots to provide clear records of voters’ selections, there are still several thousand voters in the state who rely on machines without a paper ballot backup. Though the machine generates a paper record of the selections, this check on the system only works if the voter looks at the paper record to ensure accuracy, and most don’t. This makes these votes difficult to accurately recount, and it is unlikely that the machines will be replaced without federal funding.

2. Local ballot software programming. About 20 percent of localities rely on small local companies for ballot software programming that are less likely to have hardened protections against unauthorized access to the software they develop for the local election machines.

3. Disrupting accurate reporting of results. On Election Day, results are typically sent to the Associated Press to disseminate broadly. This information is shared with the outlet via public internet connection, making the reporting software subject to manipulation. While a hand recount can determine the real count should reported results be manipulated, at that point the damage to public trust could be beyond repair. If the Russians simply want to call the credibility of results into question, this disruption would accomplish that goal.

4. Attacking the state voter registration base. Wisconsin’s voter registration information is compiled in a centralized, state-wide database and the state has credentialed an unusually high number of officials with system access – some 2,000. This multiplies the likelihood of mischief aimed at registration rolls through hacking the credentials of an authorized user. Though Wisconsin mitigates this risk through same-day registration, massive issues on election day itself would cause very long lines, likely dissuading voters. Fortunately, Wisconsin is also an early voting state; thus, encouragement of early voting is the best protection against voter registration-based manipulation.

5. The epicenter of any likely setback. The most vulnerable part of Wisconsin is the area known as the Fox Valley (no relation to Fox News). This 18-county area with 400,000 people (the highest population outside Madison and Milwaukee) has the greatest concentration of Obama voters in 2012 who voted for Trump in 2016. With the 2016 election decided by less than 1 percent of the vote, any Russian manipulation here could make a big difference and be least noticeable.

Efforts to marshal resources in Wisconsin to safeguard the election are severely undermined by a state government split between a Democratic governor and a Republican state legislature. The latter removed funds for election protection from the recently passed budget. With an election system touching 72 counties and 1852 municipalities, there is concern that tiny IT departments trying to protect the election system will be outgunned if the governor cannot make local grants, and without the federal Homeland Security Department increasing protections to Wisconsin’s registration and election result websites.

Because Wisconsin may determine the 2020 election, making sure the results are accurate is critical. Yet, Republicans in the U.S. Senate and the Wisconsin state legislature continue to block reasonable efforts to ensure the integrity of the election outcome against a Russian effort capable of wreaking havoc. For those who are still trying to figure out which Democratic candidate to support, the best path toward  Democratic victory might be simply to support the Wisconsin Democratic Party in their (sadly not bipartisan) efforts to safeguard our most important democratic virtue: fair and accurate elections.

Tom Rogers is the founder of CNBC and a CNBC contributor; he also established MSNBC, is the former CEO of TiVo, currently executive chairman of WinView, and is former senior counsel to a congressional committee. 

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