Wisconsin absentee ballots, AP generic file photo (copy)

Poll workers sort out early and absentee ballots at the Kenosha Municipal building on Election Day, 2020.

Our democracy is facing increased threats, and Americans are paying attention. In a nationwide poll just this week, voters ranked threats to democracy as the top issue facing the country, ahead of cost of living and the economy.

To the great credit of the Badger State, Wisconsinites aren’t just paying attention. They’re doing something about it.

Recently, after careful study, Dane County voted to fund plans for a secure county election facility. This is a step that will protect our friends, neighbors and family members who help run elections in Wisconsin.

The county made clear that investing in the security of our democratic process is a priority. And the decision couldn’t be more timely. In blue and red counties alike, violent threats against election workers are on the rise as bad actors try to undermine our elections.

I was director of the U.S. Secret Service under both Republican and Democratic presidents, and I’ve spent a total of 35 years as a security professional. I believe these threats are real, many of them are credible, and we have to take them seriously.

One in six election officials nationwide have been threatened, and a third report feeling unsafe in their jobs. Poll workers, who give their time to make sure our elections are free, fair and secure, are facing heightened harassment and death threats.

Perhaps most troubling is that a growing number of our fellow Americans now see political violence as an acceptable or even necessary part of our national life. Political violence isn’t new in the United States, but 34% of Americans now say violence against the government is sometimes justified.

Dane County understands this all too well. The county’s Election Security Review Committee found that election officials in the county and the city of Madison are being threatened and harassed as much as, if not more than, their colleagues across the country.

The overwhelming majority of Dane County clerks — 84% — say that threats against election officials have increased in recent years. And almost all the clerks who were threatened reported that they were threatened more than once.

These numbers paint a dark picture. But we don’t have to resign ourselves to this state of affairs. By funding plans for secure facilities, Dane County set an example that can be followed across the country.

Local officials followed a thoughtful process in compiling their findings, bringing together an interdisciplinary coalition of law enforcement leaders, academic researchers and local clerks. In consultation with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the FBI, these experts examined various dimensions of security for elections and election officials.

What they found was troubling. The Election Security Review Committee concluded that the physical election setup in Dane County and its cities and towns isn’t good enough for what Homeland Security has designated as “critical infrastructure.”

In addition to the threats to elections workers, the committee found that the physical offices of city and county clerks, as well as the facilities for storing voting equipment and ballots, don’t meet appropriate standards.

As the committee wrote, dedicated Wisconsin election officials and poll workers are doing their best under difficult circumstances and unprecedented scrutiny. By funding plans for secure facilities, the county is doing right by them.

These were locally researched solutions, backed by local dollars, to protect the trusted officials who make sure elections in Dane County are secure and accurate. The rest of Wisconsin, and the country, can use this as a model as they assess the threats facing election workers and improve security for them and for election facilities.

Dane County has shown that it understands a core truth: If our election workers aren’t safe, our democracy isn’t safe. As someone who spent a career assessing threats to those who serve our country, and designing and implementing security improvements to protect them, I commend Dane County officials for both the process and the outcome.

I urge counties across the country to follow their lead by carefully and deliberately investing in election security. The need is clear, and Dane County has shown us all how to meet it.

Mark Sullivan is the former director of the United States Secret Service.

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