Elections panel proves it needs three staffers

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THE MOST battle-tested officials in state government over the last seven years are those that work with the 1,853 local clerks to oversee elections.

Consider what they have been through:

A statewide 2011 Supreme Court vote recount. Recall petitions, and then recall elections, for Gov. Scott Walker, Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch and one-third of the state senate. A major reorganization when the Government Accountability Board was scrapped and the Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC) was created. A statewide recount of Nov. 8 votes for President. A four-year cut in agency personnel of 28%.

Oh, and WEC administrators were first told that there had been no attempt by foreign hackers to break into state voter data or systems last year, only to be told later that - oops! - there had been an attempt, which didn't succeed.

Whew.

NOW, consider what WEC must do in the next 11 months: Upgrade and maintain security systems, so the next foreign-agent hacker isn't successful. Oversee an April Supreme Court election, August partisan primaries and November elections for the U.S. Senate, governor and lieutenant governor, half of the state Senate and all 99 Assembly members.

Whew.

All this means, when WEC full-time staffers and part-time board members who set agency policy (including former Republican Rep. Dean Knudson) plead for three more employees, the Legislature and governor should do more than just listen.

WHEN more than 10 years of federal funds ended that had paid for WEC positions, the Legislature voted to restore five of those jobs. But Walker vetoed that cash, suggesting that the agency use limited-term employees (LTEs) or even hire private contractors.

Last week, the six WEC commissioners respectfully said what the agency does is so complicated and important that hiring LTEs or private contractors would be dangerous. WEC doesn't routinely file documents or issue permits, for example.

"WEC has few tasks that are considered routine or that do not require expertise and sound judgment," commissioners and Acting WEC Administrator Mike Haas noted.

"Temporary services staff are generally less vested in the accuracy of the agency's work and cannot match the accumulated expertise and judgment of [permanent] staff who are immersed in the nuances of election laws and procedures on a daily basis," they said.

"Also, there are high stakes and severe consequences in the event of flawed work product or incorrect guidance being provided to [WEC] customers.

"WEC staff is hypervigilant about providing correct answers to clerks, candidates and voters, knowing that errors may have an impact on the rights and responsibilities of those parties and potentially lead to complications in the election process, as well as negative media attention and loss of public confidence in elections."

THOSE six words - "loss of public confidence in elections" -are important, since the Democratic candidate for President, Hillary Clinton, continues to cast doubt on President Trump's legitimate claim to that office. And Wisconsin, remember, was one of the key states whose voters elected him President.

WEC now has an authorized staff of 25.

What would the three new staffers do? Cybersecurity, "the security of voting equipment and polling place procedures," and "voter services and outreach," according to a WEC memo.

But, as usual, partisan politics may cloud any move to give WEC new employees when the Legislature returns to the Capitol next year.

LAST week, three Democratic Assembly members - Reps. Fred Kessler and JoCasta Zamarripa, of Milwaukee, and Chris Taylor, of Madison - told Walker that his veto placed the WEC "in jeopardy and our elections at risk."

"We desperately need secure elections, and your actions have left Wisconsin vulnerable to interference by foreign government actors or other parties," the Democrats said,

Walker "will review" any bill restoring WEC positions that passes the Legislature, spokesman Tom Evenson told wispolitics.com.

But Republicans who control the Capitol should not only authorize those three new WEC staffers. They should also take the "acting" out of Haas's job title. He's earned the job of WEC "administrator" without wondering about his future.

(Correction: A recent column said the phrase "Lower Taxes. Higher Standards" was the official slogan of Gov. Walker's  2010 campaign. Instead, that was the slogan of Walker's 2006 campaign, which he ended to allow former Congressman Mark Green to be the party's nominee for governor. The official slogan of Walker's successful 2010 campaign was "Believe in Wisconsin Again.")

Steven Walters is a senior producer for the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. Contact him at stevenscwalters@gmail.com

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