The City of Verona will begin using electronic poll books during the spring primary election on Feb. 18 to make the voter check-in process run more smoothly.
Although the electronic poll books are designed to speed up operations on Election Day, cybersecurity experts say municipalities should still consider the possibility that they could introduce vulnerabilities to the system.
The electronic poll books, also known in Wisconsin as Badger Books, will replace the traditional method of looking up voters on printed paper lists of registered voters at polling sites. The devices are not the same as the ballot machines used to count votes.
In 2017, the Wisconsin Elections Commission developed the Badger Books with feedback from municipal clerks and poll workers. The software will check in and register voters, process absentee ballots and upload election participation into the WisVote database.
“The only difference is they’ll be looking up the voters electronically,” city deputy clerk Kayla Martin said, noting that the electronic poll books are similar to point of sale terminals used at restaurants.
City clerk Ellen Clark said the city chose to switch to the Badger Books to eliminate long lines and make the experience of voting faster and more convenient.
Reid Magney, a public information officer at the Wisconsin Elections Commission, said the machines can also end up saving time and money for cities like Verona.
Recording voters individually in printed poll books is a time consuming process for city staff, Magney said.
“It could take a month or more for clerical workers in the clerk’s office – and sometimes they have to hire temps to do this – to go through pages and pages and pages of these poll books to record all the participation,” he said.
Badger Books at the same polling site connect to one another and update in real time, Clark said. The system improves accuracy and allows election workers to spot errors, such as a voter who is at the wrong polling location or has already voted.
With convenience on Election Day and saved staff time comes a potential downside – security has been a driving concern since the 2016 elections, and experts say e-poll books like the Badger Books can be vulnerable to hackers.
A 2019 U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee Report found that Russian hackers had targeted election infrastructure in all 50 states, including Wisconsin, with some activity targeted at voter databases.
If electronic poll books are compromised by hackers, people could be removed from the databases, or fake accounts could be created, Jeremy Epstein, an elections and cybersecurity expert and former senior computer scientist at SRI International, said.
Clark and Magney both told the Press that the Badger Books do not connect to the internet, but do connect to other Badger Books at the same polling site via a secure internal wireless network.
Epstein said it was unclear to him how the e-poll books would connect without an Internet connection. He suggested that it might be a question of how clerks and vendors were describing that connection.
Maurice Turner, deputy director of the Internet Architecture Project at the Center for Democracy and Technology, said municipalities moving to electric systems from paper ones will bring a “host of benefits.”
“Anything that has software on it, there is the potential for that software to be compromised,” Turner said. “But I think overall the check-in process is something that’s gone smoothly across the country when it comes to electronic poll books, when compared to their paper counterparts.”
Turner said the State of Wisconsin has done a good job ensuring that clerks and election workers are well trained and using as few network connections as possible. Poll workers are also equipped with password-protected USB sticks to transfer data from the Badger Books to computers with Internet connections.
Martin said in addition to the training Verona will require of its election workers, she has been trained by the Wisconsin Elections Commission on how to operate the poll books.
Though he urged caution Epstein, who serves as an election worker in his home state of Virginia, said he is actually a fan of the poll books.
“I’m a precinct chief myself” Epstein said. “They basically have eliminated lines (at his polling locations) for all practical purposes.”
“If someone shows up in the wrong precinct, I can instantly look them up and tell them which precinct it is.”
Clark said that if there were any mishaps on Election Day, printed copies of the electronic poll books would still be available to election workers as a backup. Turner said the main precaution voters could take is to check registrations a day or two before heading to the polls.