Dane County to turn former brewery building into elections center

Officials say increased security threats, inclement weather risk make the project necessary

The former site of the Ale Asylum brewery in Madison, which will soon be used by Dane County the city of Madison to store election equipment.
The former site of the Ale Asylum brewery in Madison, which will soon be used by Dane County the city of Madison to store election equipment. Photo courtesy of Dane County Clerk.

Dane County plans to turn a building that once housed the Ale Asylum brewery into a new elections center.

The Dane County Elections Center will provide a safe and secure location for election-related storage and business as threats against elections workers have grown in recent years, county officials announced Thursday.

“Where it all starts is the 2020 election denial push, the threats against clerks,” said Dane County clerk Scott McDonell. “We really don’t have adequate facilities in this county and really, that’s a common problem around the country, but for us it was painfully obvious.”

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The 45,038-square foot building near the Dane County Regional Airport will be used for storing election equipment and ballots, as well as testing voting machines and possible other business in the future. The county has included $19 million for the project in its proposed budget.

In March 2021, the Dane County Board of Supervisors established an Election Security Review Committee. The committee reviewed county election facilities, held discussions with municipal clerks and local FBI offices, and reviewed security with the Department of Homeland Security.

The committee’s July 2022 report concluded that the current Dane County and Madison municipal clerk offices, where the city and county store ballots and equipment between elections, are not adequate.

“Physical threats to clerks, their staff, and poll workers undermine election integrity and pose a danger to those individuals engaged in the vital task of running elections,” the report read.

The county has taken steps to address security in its current building, including adding bulletproof plexiglass, panic buttons, key cards and secured doors. But McDonell said it’s not enough.

“There’s sort of an ongoing slow attack going on at the local level on these election facilities,” he said.

A nationwide survey of local election officials by the Brennan Center for Justice found nearly three quarters say they feel threats against them have increased in recent years.

Threats to secure storage can also come from more mundane sources like water and inclement weather, McDonell said. Ballots are required to be stored for 22 months after federal elections. Tabulators, ADA devices, polling place signage, and servers used to design and program elections must also be stored safely, McDonell said.

The county’s current facilities have had issues with leaks from showers and toilets in the aging jail, which occupies the top floors of the City County Building in downtown Madison, according to McDonell.

“We’ve had water come down into our server space on multiple occasions,” he said.

Snow and flooding are also a concern, he said, and the Ale Asylum building has a covered loading dock.

While the renovations are expected to take several years, some of its uses could begin in time for 2024 spring elections. Election material is currently stored all over the county, McDonell said, and the process to move into the new building will be gradual. But, he expects it to be useful as a storage warehouse at a minimum in 2024.

The Ale Asylum craft brewery, known for beers such as Hopalicious and Ambergeddon, closed last year. Another Madison brewery, Karben4, has since purchased the right to brew and sell products under the Ale Asylum name.

The former Ale Asylum brewery sits on land already owned by the county.