Mac Warner ready to roll out program

The Inter-Mountain photo by Amanda Hayes West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner, center, speaks with commissioner Terry Cutright and county clerk Carol Smith Thursday.

BUCKHANNON — West Virginia’s Secretary of State is ready to roll out a program on elections and cybersecurity and he is starting with high school students.

Beginning in April, Mac Warner hopes to Skype with students across the Mountain State as to how Russians were able to meddle in recent elections. A special investigation at the national level is not complete.

“The meddling is occurring but it is not at the polls,” Warner said Thursday while visiting Upshur County. “It is not at the ballot box which is what everyone thought initially — that the Russians were trying to hack and change votes. They didn’t change any votes.”

The physical aspect of elections are safe and secure, according to Warner.

However, it is has been discovered that Russians hacked into voter registration databases in both Illinois and Arizona.

“They got into the voter registration database and that sent ripples through the whole United States as to what the Russians are doing and what they are up to,” Warner said.

Moreover, the Russians attempting to interfere in elections have affected the very spirit of the county, according to the secretary of state.

“The strength of America is our freedom of press, freedom of religion and freedom of assembly,” Warner said. “We don’t think about assembly too often. In the primaries and right after the election, they put Americans on the street fighting with one another.”

The Russians also used social media — something that Warner plans to stress in his high school Skype conversations.

“They made up fake stuff,” he said. “In North Dakota, they said if you vote in the North Dakota election, you will lose your hunting license in South Dakota and Minnesota.

“The Russians are trying to get inside our head and they are doing it by pitting Americans against one another,” he said. “It took us about a year or two to get on to that.”

Warner said he will be telling the students that they need to trust the election process both at the local level such as in Upshur County (overseen by county clerk Carol Smith), and higher up.

“If you start distrusting America, distrusting government, distrusting [Smith], distrusting me, the Russians have won,” he said. “Whenever you hear America has never been as divided as they are today and you spread that message, the Russians are playing. You are just leveraging the message the Russians want us to convey that Americans are against each other, we can’t trust each other, we can’t trust government, and that is what is wrong.”

Since learning what has happened, there have been steps taken at the national level to fight Russian interference.

“Americans are on to this and in the last election, we shut down the Russian IRA,” he said. “We shut them down for two days so they couldn’t meddle with our elections and they couldn’t falsely report that information I just said.”

At the state level, Warner hired National Guard member with top secret clearance to monitor West Virginia elections and hosted a training for county clerks in 2018.

“West Virginia is leading the nation in cyber security,” he said. “We had a training last summer in Morgantown. I think we have the best trained clerks in America because of what we did in pushing that out. It’s not just us saying that, HBO came in and filmed that to show what a great job West Virginia is doing.”

Warner also discussed two West Virginia legislative issues that affect elections.

The Campaign Finance Reform bill would set West Virginia limits consistent with the federal limits.

“More importantly, it brings in some transparency to the whole process and makes a clear definition of what a PAC is,” Warner said. “That sort of thing is important so people know what needs to be reported, what doesn’t, etc.

“We are hoping the governor does not veto it. It has been rumored that there is a push to do that. The problem with that is it is only partial information out. People want to focus on the money side of it. That is a component of it but I think the more important side is the transparency that this bill would bring to the whole campaign financing.”

Another issue is automatic voter registration, which had been passed previously, according to Warner. Because of problems with the Department of Motor Vehicles’ older computer system, there is data that is not being communicated through their system and the Secretary of State’s office.

Warner said the legislature postponed the implementation of the automatic voter registration for two years.

“There are some pros and cons to that bill,” he said. “Some of the states have pushed it too fast and the systems haven’t been ready. It takes major upgrades to the systems both in the Department of Motor Vehicles and in the Secretary of State’s office to get those systems compatible. “

He shared an example of California, which had to have 23,000 voters use provisional ballots after problems with the system.

“Right now, if West Virginia turned it on and we weren’t transferring information properly, we could have several hundred voters a day think they were registered but actually not be registered because we didn’t have all the information,” Warner said. “Let’s get the systems right first, then implement.”