MADISON, Wis. — Poll workers would be able to trade their paper and pens for laptops and printers by next year’s fall elections under a plan Wisconsin election officials approved Tuesday to develop electronic poll books.

The state Elections Commission voted unanimously to have its staff develop e-poll book software and offer it to local election clerks on a pilot basis beginning in February. The commission plans to offer the software to clerks statewide by the August 2018 primaries.

The project is expected to cost about $124,865 in staff time. Municipalities that decide to use the system would have to purchase hardware such as laptops and printers at a rate of $475 to $970 per voter check-in station at the polls.

Commission staff insisted the move would create dramatic administrative efficiencies and shorten lines at the polls. The books could be programmed to accept Election Day registrations, track absentee ballots and provide access to lists of felons who can’t vote. They would be compatible with the commission’s existing programs, making it easy to upload and share information and statistics. They also could be programmed with guides to help poll workers navigate problems as they arise on-site, reducing training time and speeding up lines, staff members told the commission.

“It’s certainly a huge time-saver,” said Richard Rydecki, a commission elections specialist.

The staff researched contracting with a private vendor to produce the software, but recommended against it because it would cost tens of thousands of dollars more than building the system internally and a vendor wouldn’t be as familiar with the details of Wisconsin election law as commission staff.

At least 27 states already use e-poll books, according to a report Rydecki presented to the commission.

Commission Chairman Mark Thomsen said he was worried about hackers attacking e-poll books.

“We really are going to need encryption and protection,” he said. “If you can scramble poll books … the day of the election, that’s how you interrupt the election.”

Rydecki said access would require two-factor authentication. That’s a setup that calls for two pieces of information, much like how people need both a bank card and a PIN number to withdraw money from an automated teller. Sarah Whitt, the lead staffer for WisVote, the statewide voter registration system, added that staff would work closely with information technology experts within Gov. Scott Walker’s administration to ensure security.

“Build away,” Thomsen replied. “Build it secure, build it efficient and I’m sure the clerks are going to be really happy.”


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