Securing our elections from Russian efforts

Imagine a geo-strategic judo match. All the power, strength, momentum, and confidence we have happens to be confronted by a failing, weak, corrupt regime. How does the weaker challenge the stronger?

Use the mightier’s strengths against him. It’s classic judo. We are up against a corrupt Russia, but it’s led by a black belt, martial arts expert. This is precisely what Putin and the Russians are doing to the United States. Allow me to explain.

Elections in America stand strong in the face of our adversaries, and every day we add resolve against threats to the core of our democracy. Ever increasing adversary use of cyber to threaten our democracy demands, we increase cyber defenses on a local, state and federal level.

The key phrase in today’s cyber world is “speed of recovery.” This phrase acknowledges that there will always be threats and bad actors seeking to infiltrate Information Technology (IT) systems. What is important is how fast one recovers from the attack.

In West Virginia, we’re “On it!” Our government IT specialists continually work to improve defenses, and when we identify a weakness, we respond with haste to correct the situation.

I completely reject the false narrative mainstream media propels that officials are not ready for the 2018 elections, or they do not care about threats to election security. Here is what voters should know.

West Virginia is actually helping lead cybersecurity matters nationally:

* As West Virginia Secretary of State, I am one of just eight secretaries of state nationwide selected to be a member and regular participant in the Government Coordinating Council Election Infrastructure Sector. This Council determines the impact of the “critical infrastructure” designation for elections.

* I led the National Association of Secretaries of State, to bring cybersecurity protocols to the fore of every state’s election strategy. Working with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), we’re in the process of obtaining security clearances for all secretaries of state to allow us to communicate securely with federal intelligence officials.

* Our office management team were charter members of Harvard’s “Defending Digital Democracy Program” that has now produced cutting-edge cybersecurity playbooks for government officials and candidates. West Virginia was the first state to distribute these materials to county clerks and to all 582 West Virginia candidates registered to run for office in 2018.

* We are now members of the Multi-State Information Sharing and Analysis Center, another communication channel to prevent cybersecurity threats against protected systems.

* The initiative that has generated the most national attention is our cooperative effort with the West Virginia National Guard. We hired a Guardsman with a TOP SECRET clearance to work election security within the West Virginia Fusion Center. This asset watches the internet, runs routine vulnerability assessments, stands guard for improper scanning and intrusions, and advises on potential threats, ongoing defense measures, and corrective action.

In short, states across the nation are looking to West Virginia for initiatives, techniques, tactics and procedures on cybersecurity issues. We stay abreast of national trends and communicate frequently with peers in other states and at the national level. As such, our IT professionals have been sought to participate in national cybersecurity training scenarios hosted by Harvard, Facebook, Google and others. Where possible, we have included local election experts, and then passed along training and lessons learned to county clerks, their staff and poll workers.

As to Russia, media outlets have reported extensively on Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections highlighted by the indictment of 13 Russians and three Russian companies who actively worked to create discord in our democratic process. It is important to distinguish what happened from what did not happen, and it is equally important is to discuss preparations for this year’s elections in this age of cyber warfare and social media influences.

What did happen, according to the indictments, is that Russia sent operatives posing as ordinary U.S. citizens inside the United States to act as political activists. They also aggressively used social media to initiate discord among opposing factions in the United States. They used cyber scans, social media ads, and organized rallies as their platforms for sowing discord. The Russians aggravated fissures in American society — immigration, race, religion, and geography — to get opposing sides to distrust one another.

Their intent was to undermine our democratic process, leading to citizens losing faith in their government.

What did not happen was the changing of any votes in the election. There was not one instance of a vote being changed by Russians or anyone else. They were unable to penetrate voting machines or vote-tallying records.

In West Virginia, no information was obtained from West Virginia databases, and no lapses occurred with our files. West Virginia’s voter registration information remains secure with backup data in place. In the event of an intrusion or a question of data accuracy, we can readily restore data and continue registration and voting as usual.

Meanwhile, we are working tirelessly with all 55 county clerks to implement best practices for every local election. Every voting machine used in West Virginia meets or exceeds national Election Assistance Commission standards and voting machines are never online or connected to the internet. Every electronic voting machine provides a Voter Verified Paper Trail; all ballots cast have a paper copy confirmed by each voter prior to submission.

Additionally, our procedures are secure. Every county and municipality using electronic voting machines is required to conduct a mandatory post-election audit by a manual percentage hand-count prior to certifying the results. All ballots — regular, early voting, and absentee — are subject to this audit. We always conduct post-election security assessments, and we constantly improve protection of the voter registration database for our 1.2 million voters.

In sum, know that Russian attacks on our democratic process was real, and what happened in 2016 should be viewed as a shot across our bow. With an information-dominance (judo) approach, Russia used our very freedoms of press, religion, and assembly against us. Intelligence indicates the threats will continue throughout 2018 and beyond, and U.S. officials are taking the threat very seriously. Accordingly, along with the other secretaries of state across the nation, I will do everything in my power to thwart attacks on our elections.

My advice is to remain vigilant, calm, and determined in the face of such attacks. They want to erode confidence in our elections and discourage voters from participating in the election process, thereby bolstering their alternative, non-democratic authoritarian government. The antidote to Russian disinformation is truth, free speech, and listening to opposing views.

We need to be leery of social media accounts of what the truth is. The Russian indictments reveal inaccurate social media posts intended to inflame passions of opposite sides to turn us against one another.

So, to the voters of West Virginia, I close with a challenge. I challenge everyone to fight back against the Russians, and the best way to fight back is to vote!

Be registered, be ready, and be informed. When the May primary rolls around, get involved like never before. Let the Russians know what you think by expressing yourself at the polls. Bring an ID, and “let freedom ring!”


Mac Warner is West Virginia secretary of state, and being the state’s chief election officer is one of his duties. He just returned from the National Association of Secretaries of State conference in Washington, D.C. While there, he received a classified briefing from FBI, DHS, and other agencies involved with U.S. intelligence.


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