Photo by Saiyna Bashir, The Capital Times

The Elections Commission has unanimously approved a plan for accepting $7 million in federal elections security funds.

The funding is intended to help the commission confront security threats in light of Russian attempts to hack Wisconsin’s elections systems before the 2016 general election.

Wednesday’s approval means the commission will ask DOA to accept the funds, which will require a $348,916 match using existing money in the commission’s budget. The federal grant is good for five years. DOA spokesman Steve Michels said his department plans to approve the request.

The commission hopes to use the money to address immediate needs ahead of November’s midterm elections.

“We’re very grateful to the feds for providing the funds that will allow us to take much needed steps to make sure that Wisconsin elections stay secure and are modernized,” Commission Chair Mark Thomsen told reporters.

Once DOA signs off, the first of those steps is implementing a multi-factor authentication system for WisVote, the commission’s online voter registration system.

Such a system, which could cost up to $200,000, would require users — mainly Wisconsin’s municipal and county clerks — to enter a password and a second factor such as a randomly generated number sent via email, to login. Thomsen says the system should be in place before the August primary elections.

Another immediate need is hiring two additional IT contractors, costing around $225,000 annually. The commission currently has three contractors who develop electronic poll books, upgrade the agency’s online voter registration systems and maintain other voting systems.

One of the new contractors would implement the multi-factor authentication system and the other would address quality assurance.

The new contractors would be tasked with implementing the multi-factor authentication system and the other on quality assurance.

The commission also approved a plan to explore using $600,000 of the grant to hire several positions. Two of those posts — voting equipment specialist and IT classified security specialist — were included in a previous 13.10 request the commission later withdrew after learning about the federal funding. Beyond those positions, the commission is also exploring hiring an IT project manager, security trainer, data specialist and grants manager.

Other immediate uses for the money could be to upgrade the commission’s servers, provide additional elections security training for county and municipal clerks, and purchase activity logging software for its online voter registration systems.

While fulfilling immediate security needs, commission staff would also begin working with the Department of Homeland Security, Wisconsin’s Department of Enterprise Technology, county and municipal clerks and the public to determine how the majority of funds should be spent.

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