With little more than a week until voting ends in the 2020 general election, West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner said the state has not become a target of foreign countries attempting to interfere in the election and sow discord in the United States.
Warner hosted a news conference Thursday morning, less than 24 hours after federal officials announced the discovery of people from Iran and Russia spreading false information about the election, candidates and other issues in an attempt to suppress voter turnout, undermine confidence in the 2020 election and sow discord among Americans.
Pennsylvania, Florida, Arizona and Alaska are the states known to have been targeted, Warner said. He said West Virginians can rest assured that their votes and their election systems are being monitored closely by his office and other state and local officials.
“I want everybody to feel comfortable in voting and to know that your votes will count,” Warner said outside the state Capitol at about 10:15 a.m.
On Wednesday, FBI Director Christopher Wray and National Intelligence Director John Ratcliffe announced that Russia and Iran had obtained voter registration information and had used it to attempt to mislead voters about their ability to vote in the election.
Iran sent spoofed emails designed to intimidate voters and sow unrest and also distributed a video that falsely suggested voters could cast fraudulent ballots from overseas, The Associated Press reported.
At the time of Warner’s news conference, 99,277 absentee ballots had been cast in West Virginia. Another 20,827 people voted in-person Wednesday, the first day of the early voting period in West Virginia, according to the Secretary of State’s Office.
There are 1.2 million registered voters in West Virginia.
“We are a divided country in many ways,” Warner said. “People are expressing themselves at the polls, which they should. That is the proper way to express yourself in our democratic process, and they’re using that opportunity to go vote.”
Warner asked voters to carefully assess any information they see or hear about the election, particularly on social media. He suggested West Virginians “use critical thinking at this point in time” and report any suspicious messages they receive to officials, including their county clerks, the police or the Secretary of State’s Office.
“Do not spread disinformation if you get an email or other social media you think is unusual (or) is nefarious — there’s something wrong in this email,” Warner said. “I want you to say something. If you see something, say something. Do not be alarmed. Do not send it on. Don’t (link to) anything. That is how these foreign actors are trying to penetrate and cause confusion in our election system.”
Warner emphasized that West Virginia’s voter registration system and the registration systems of the affected states had not been breached or hacked.
Voter registration data is something that legally can be obtained from local election officials, most often by political parties and campaigns, and other politically active groups, for a variety of purposes, including sharing information about candidates or the election.
Warner said federal officials have said it appears the infiltrators in this situation presented a false front to give the appearance of a group that wanted to use the data for regular legal campaign purposes.
Natalie Tennant, a Democrat who is challenging Warner for secretary of state and served in that job from 2009 to 2017, said voters should be wary of potentially false information.
An email or message should be considered suspicious if it entails things like forceful or threatening language, Tennant said, or saying incorrect information about the election. As an example, she said, one voter-suppression tactic used in the past is for infiltrators to send out emails saying certain political parties vote on certain days.
“We have great enthusiasm and interest in this election,” Tennant said. “People are willing to wait up to four hours to go vote. If [the foreign actors] cause that confusion and cause it to take more time, it causes people not to be able to stay and stand in line to vote, and that hurts voter confidence.”
Voter registration records, while accessible to the public through the appropriate channels, can be subject to breaches when it’s done online, Tennant said.
Tennant said she partnered the Secretary of State’s Office with the West Virginia National Guard in 2016 to monitor cybersecurity of that election. She said she also engaged with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to receive the latest information about threats to the election system, a practice Warner said his office has continued in his term.
Dave Tackett, chief information officer for the Secretary of State’s Office, joined Warner at the news conference and said the office receives regular briefings from federal officials about the tactics and techniques infiltrators are using to affect elections.
He and Warner said the Secretary of State’s Office works closely with the West Virginia Fusion Center, which collects, evaluates, analyzes and disseminates information and intelligence data regarding criminal and terrorist activity in West Virginia while following Fair Information Practices to ensure the rights and privacy of citizens.
Tackett said West Virginia receives information about cybersecurity from across the country, including particularly close relationships with Colorado, Ohio and Iowa.
“The communication channels are strong, clear and active,” Tackett said.