Panel OKs public relations push on Wisconsin elections

MADISON — State elections officials voted Tuesday to hire an advertising firm to develop a public relations campaign reassuring voters that Wisconsin elections are secure and to provide information about how elections work.

The Wisconsin Elections Commission voted 4-2 to spend $260,000 to hire Madison-based KW2 to develop the campaign. The money will come from interest earned on a $7 million federal grant the state received in 2018 to bolster election security.

Two Republican commissioners — Dean Knudson and Bob Spindell — objected to spending the money on the campaign and voted against it. But Meagan Wolfe, the director of the commission, cast spending money on the campaign as an election security issue.

“This is one of the most important things we can do to protect elections in 2020," she said. “We're making sure facts have a fighting chance in a sea of misinformation."

In 2016, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security said "Russian government cyber actors" tried unsuccessfully to gain access to a Wisconsin state government website as they looked for vulnerabilities. Federal and state officials have said Wisconsin's elections systems were not compromised.

The commission approved the new public relations campaign after KW2 presented it with a survey of Wisconsin residents conducted this past fall that showed 70% of respondents said they were worried about one or more perceived threats to election security.

KW2 has recommended two additional phases of public outreach, including digital ads, that could cost up to $630,000. The commission decided to hold off on approving any additional spending until after they can evaluate the initial campaign's effectiveness during the spring elections.

The commission on Tuesday also voted to accept another federal election security grant, this one worth $7.8 million. The commission has to provide a $1.6 million match to obtain the grant, however.