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Warner says no interference in W.Va.

UPDATE — West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner is flanked by, from left, Chief Information Officer Dave Tackett, Chief of Staff Chuck Flannery and General Counsel Donald Kersey during a press conference Thursday in Charleston. (Photo by Steven Allen Adams)

CHARLESTON — Secretary of State Mac Warner wants West Virginia voters to know that election officials are watching for interference by foreign governments a day after federal officials released details of a voter intimidation plot by Iran and Russia.

Warner and state election officials held a press conference Thursday morning in front of the west entrance of the Capitol to talk about a briefing Wednesday night by Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe and FBI Director Christopher Wray regarding election interference in four states.

“I’m here to assure the voters in West Virginia that West Virginia is not one of those states,” Warner said. “There’s been no interference here. There’s been no manipulation of data.”

Ratcliffe and Wray accused Iran and Russia of using publicly available voter registration information to send emails to voters in Florida, Pennsylvania, Arizona and Alaska. The emails claimed to be on behalf of the Proud Boys, a self-proclaimed “western chauvinist” group whose members are known for Islamophobic and anti-Semitic statements and for acts of violence.

The emails, with the subject line “Vote for Trump or else” and aimed at registered Democratic voters, said they had possession of all the voter’s information and had access to voter infrastructure.

“You will vote for Trump on Election Day or we will come after you,” one email stated. “Change your party affiliation to Republican to let us know you received our message and will comply. We will know which candidate you voted for. I would take this seriously if I were you.”

In a statement Thursday, Google confirmed the emails were linked to Iran, which sent 25,000 spoofed emails. Google said 90 percent of the emails were captured by spam filters, but some made it to inboxes. Google has shut down the accounts and is working with the FBI.

Warner said the secretaries of state and other state election officials were notified by federal officials about the alleged interference prior to Wednesday night’s announcement. Warner praised national intelligence and law enforcement officials for keeping secretaries of state informed.

“This is the fastest ever disclosure of election interference information,” Warner said. “They openly acknowledged that foreign actors have been caught interfering with our elections. These foreign actors have attained voter registration data, and they’re using it to intimidate or suppress voters via social media.”

According to a report released by former FBI Director Robert Mueller last year, Russia attempted to interfere in the 2016 U.S. elections. The Internet Research Agency, a company with close ties to Russian intelligence, used social media to spread misinformation about President Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential race. The goal was to “sow discord” by stoking biases and using political differences to exploit the public and to shake confidence in the election process.

During the 2016 campaign, 21 states’ voter registration systems were targeted, though no evidence exists that voter rolls were changed. West Virginia was not one of the 21 states. Since he took office in 2017, Warner has worked to improve cybersecurity for elections in West Virginia and nationally.

“We have been preparing for this since 2016,” Warner said. “We use the phrase ‘Protect, Detect, and Correct.’ We’ve been using that with our county clerks to be prepared for moments just such as this.”

The office makes use of a West Virginia National Guard asset to monitor firewalls. Warner worked to get national security clearances for secretaries of state so federal officials could more easily share information. The office has conducted trainings and tabletop exercises with all 55 county clerks and their staff on scenarios to deal with election interference. Dave Tackett, the chief information officer for the Secretary of State’s Office, said there is more communication and data-sharing between federal partners and other state election officials.

“We’re sharing information upstream to our federal partners, we’re sharing it downstream to our local election officials, and we’re asking them to share upstream,” Tackett said. “As counterparts we will share information, and if it looks like it’s something that needs aggregated upstream, we do … the communication channels are strong, clear, and active.

Warner has spent the last year working with the Defending Digital Democracy project at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. He is a founding member of the national Government Coordinating Council on Elections Infrastructure. Warner gave a keynote address Oct. 1 at a virtual workshop by the University of Southern California’s Election Cybersecurity Initiative.

“I want to assure the West Virginia citizens that the voter registration system here has not been breached and those elections are ongoing as we speak,” Warner said. “I want everybody to feel comfortable in voting and to know that your votes will count.”

Voters who receive a suspicious email or text or encounter something suspicious can contact the Secretary of State’s Office at 1-877-FRAUD-WV.

(Adams can be contacted at sadams@newsandsentinel.com)

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