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States are on front lines of 2020 election-security efforts

SPRINGFIELD, Va. — Inside a hotel ballroom near the nation’s capital, a U.S. Army officer with battlefield experience told 120 state and local election officials that they may have more in common with military strategists than they might think.

These government officials are on the front lines of a different kind of battlefield — one in which they are helping to defend American democracy by ensuring free and fair elections.

“Everyone in this room is part of a bigger effort, and it’s only together are we going to get through this,” the officer said.

That officer and other past and present national security leaders had a message to convey to officials from 24 states gathered for a recent training held by a Harvard-affiliated democracy project: They are the linchpins in efforts to defend U.S. elections from an attack by Russia, China or other foreign threats, and developing a military mindset will help them protect the integrity of the vote.

The need for such training reflects how election security worries have heightened in the aftermath of the 2016 election, when Russian military agents attempted to target voting systems across the country as part of a multipronged effort to influence the presidential election. Until then, the job of local election officials could had been described as akin to a wedding planner who keeps track of who will be showing up on Election Day and ensures all the equipment and supplies are in place.

Now, these officials are on the front lines. The federal government will be on high alert, gathering intelligence and scanning systems for suspicious cyber activity as they look to defend the nation’s elections. Meanwhile, it will be the state and county officials who will be on the ground charged with identifying and dealing with any hostile acts.

“It’s another level of war,” said Jesse Salinas, the chief elections official in Yolo County, California, who attended the training. “You only attack things that you feel are a threat to you, and our democracy is a threat to a lot of these nation-states that are getting involved trying to undermine it. We have to fight back, and we have to prepare.”

Salinas brought four of his employees with him to the training, which was part of the Defending Digital Democracy Project based at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School. The group has been working actively with former and current military, national security, political and communications experts — many of whom dedicate their time after work and on weekends — to develop training and manuals for state and local election officials. Those involved with leading the training asked for anonymity because of their sensitive positions.

The project’s latest playbook focuses on bringing military best practices to running Election Day operations, encouraging state and local election officials to adopt a “battle staff” command structure with clear responsibilities and standard operating procedures for dealing with minor issues. The project is also providing officials with a free state-of-the-art incident tracking system.

Eric Rosenbach, co-director of the Belfer Center and a former U.S. Army intelligence officer who served as chief of staff to Defense Secretary Ash Carter in the Obama administration, told the group gathered for the training that it “shouldn’t be lost on you that this is a very military-like model.”

“Let’s be honest about it,” Rosenbach said. “If democracy is under attack and you guys are the ones at the pointy end of the spear, why shouldn’t we train that way? Why shouldn’t we try to give you the help that comes with that model and try to build you up and do all we can?”

Instructors stressed the need for election officials to be on the lookout for efforts to disrupt the vote and ensure that communications are flowing up from counties to the state, down from states to the counties, as well as up and down to the federal government and across states.

Piecing together seemingly disparate actions happening in real time across geographical locations will allow the nation to defend itself, said Robby Mook, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager in 2016. Mook founded the Defending Digital Democracy Project with Rosenbach and Matt Rhoades, Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign manager.

“Find a way to input data in a consistent, efficient and reliable way to ensure you know what is going on and prevent things from falling through the cracks,” Mook told the election officials. “You got to rise above just putting out fires.”

At the training were officials from California, Colorado, Georgia, North Carolina, Oregon, Tennessee, West Virginia and other states. In one exercise, election officials were paired up as either a state or county under an Election Day scenario, charged with logging incidents and trying to piece together what turned out to be four different coordinated campaigns to disrupt voting.

“One of the big takeaways was just how the lack of one piece of information moving up from the counties to the state or moving from the states to counties, if either of those things don’t happen, it can have a significant impact,” said Stephen Trout, elections director for Oregon.

Trout said he would move quickly to acquire, customize and implement the incident tracking system, which would be an upgrade from the paper process currently in use.

Dave Tackett, chief information officer for the West Virginia Secretary of State’s Office, said he will recommend some structuring changes at his state operations center, including bringing key personnel into the room and incorporating elements of the incident tracking system like mapping and the ability to assign people to specific incidents.

“Events like today are helping us zero in on how to structure ourselves better, how to really think in a different mindset so that we can carry out all the different tasks that have to be done with elections,” said Karen Brinson Bell, executive director of the North Carolina Board of Elections. “(It’s) the importance of communications, the importance of having standard operating procedures in place so all the i’s are dotted and the t’s crossed ahead of time and you are prepared for the unknown.”

Families spend day after Christmas together outside

HUNTINGTON — Kids excited to show off what Santa had brought them, and families spending some post-holiday quality time together, all took to local parks Thursday, the day after Christmas.

Temperatures were mild in Huntington, reaching a high of 66 degrees — not quite reaching the record high of 74 degrees set in 2016, but a nice upgrade from the day’s average temperature of 52 degrees.

Though the sunshine itself was a draw to get folks outdoors, for some Southside residents, a power outage caused by a motor vehicle crash in the neighborhood also prompted them to leave the confines of their homes for some fresh air and socialization.

Weather is to be mild through Saturday — plenty of time to take that new bike, scooter or remote-controlled vehicle outside for a spin.

Online sales make up a larger portion of overall sales again

NEW YORK — More people did their shopping online this year during one of the shortest holiday shopping seasons in years, helping to push total sales higher.

Retail sales in the U.S. rose 3.4% between Nov. 1 and Dec. 24 compared with last year, according to early data from Mastercard SpendingPulse.

Online sales rose at a faster pace, up 18.8% from last year. Online shopping made up nearly 15% of total retail sales.

Mastercard SpendingPulse tracked spending online and in stores across all payment types, including those who paid by cash or check. Sales of automobiles are not included.

Faced with the shortest holiday shopping season since 2013, stores were trumpeting deals even before Halloween with hopes of getting people to think about Christmas.

Thanksgiving landed on Nov. 28 this year, the latest possible date it could fall. That meant six fewer days than last year, forcing last-minute shoppers to scramble. The Saturday before Christmas was the busiest shopping day in U.S. history, surpassing Black Friday, according to research firm Customer Growth Partners.

Amazon, which stepped up its one-day deliveries this year, said more people tried out its $119-a-year Prime membership this year than any other year, adding more than 5 million new customers in a single week. Members get faster shipping and other perks, like movie streaming.

Mastercard said overall clothing sales rose 1%. Jewelry sales increased 1.8%. Sales of electronics and appliances rose 4.6%. And furniture sales grew 1.3%.

Department stores, which have been hit hard by the rise of online shopping, still had trouble getting shoppers in their doors: Total sales fell 1.8%, Mastercard said.

Christmas Day does not signal the end of the fight for shoppers, however.

Retailers are all but certain to offer steep discounts through at least New Year’s Day in hopes of snaring those who did not get all they had hoped for in the shortened holiday shopping season, said C. Britt Beemer, CEO at America’s Research Group, a consumer behavior firm.

“You’re going to see a bunch of larger crowds in the stores,” Beemer said.

Luke Creasy/HD Media Kolby Stiltner (30) defends Nate Vance (50) as Wayne takes on Poca in a high school boys basketball game at Wayne Dec. 23, 2019.

cparsons / Wikimedia Commons  

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Classic Peanut Butter Cookies with the criss-cross design on top bring back lots of sweet memories for Janet McCormick and her family.

Local, statewide events planned for 100th anniversary of 19th Amendment

HUNTINGTON — With 2020 just around the corner, West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner announced the formation of a committee designed to plan year-long, statewide celebrations commemorating the centennial of the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920, which gave women in the United States the right to vote.

Faculty and staff at Marshall University are among those involved in spearheading local events and celebrations for the coming year.

“Marshall and community leaders are all working together to plan these various events,” said Kat Williams, professor of U.S. women’s history at Marshall. “There will be marches, there will be speeches and there will be a number of different, exciting events.”

Williams said one of the committee’s main goals is to bring the milestone to the attention of those who may be unaware of its importance.

“A lot of people don’t know that 2020 is the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage, and they have a lot of misconceptions about it,” Williams said. “Women fought for 72 years to gain the right to vote; the women’s suffrage movement started in 1848, so this was a really long fight. This is a significant piece of legislation that we’re celebrating.”

Williams is teaching a one-time class during the spring 2020 semester as part of Marshall’s celebration of women’s suffrage. The class will discuss the history of women in the country since the passage of the amendment 100 years ago.

“What we’ve done in that 100 years since women gained the right to vote has been remarkable,” Williams said.

Helen Gibbins, president of the League of Women Voters of the Huntington Area, said it is also playing a significant role in the planning of both local and statewide events.

“We’re working with Marshall University and we’re working with a statewide group,” Gibbins said.

Gibbins said some of the smaller events will lead up to a parade on Women’s Equality Day in August 2020, which will begin on Marshall’s campus.

The League of Women Voters has also performed a “Right to Vote” Reader’s Theater in years prior, and Gibbins said this year the group will make a special effort to include more information about women’s suffrage.

A complete list of events statewide will be produced by the Secretary of State’s Office and will be released at the start of the new year.

“It’s important that people know about it and it’s important that kids are learning about it in school; it’s like a free history lesson,” Williams said of the commemoration. “We are celebrating the 100th anniversary of women in this country having full citizenship rights, and it doesn’t get much larger than that.”