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How West Virginia Is Approaching Election Security


Finally today, we want to look ahead to the 2018 midterms because they are already here and because Russian hackers have already attempted to hack three 2018 candidates. Just this week, Microsoft's vice president for customer security said Russian hackers targeted the staffers of three 2018 candidates with the kind of phishing tactics used in 2016.

So how are the states safeguarding their election systems? We're going to hear now from the top election official in West Virginia - Secretary of State Mac Warner. He is a Republican. He told me earlier today that it's not a question of if there will be attempts to interfere in the midterms but when those attacks are likely to take place.

MAC WARNER: Well, all we have to do is look back to the playbook that the Russians used in 2016. That is a continuing concern, and that is mainly spoofing and spearphishing efforts to break inside of personal emails, campaigns, candidates, committees. I'm sure they're going to be at it again this year as they did in 2016.

MARTIN: Since 2016, West Virginia has been a leader in trying to safeguard election security with new technologies. Secretary Warner told me about an election cybersecurity training he attended last summer at Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

WARNER: They invited me up, and I brought my team up, and we actually participated in a series of tabletop exercises that set the groundwork for giving campaigns and candidates a playbook to counter against this. And it prepared me for things will happen. You have to react, and you have to use all the resources at your fingertips, both down the line with the county officials and up the line with the federal officials, to get the proper reaction.

So it caused us to do the communication, to open up those lines of communication. And we have done that here in the state of West Virginia. And, on Monday, we are going to have here in West Virginia perhaps the first full-fledged tabletop exercise to train our county clerks from across the state in this cyber-atmosphere of what's coming at them.

MARTIN: Could you give me a sense of what some of the things are that you have learned from the exercises that you've been participating in?

WARNER: What I learned at Belfer was it's not if - it's when. We are being constantly probed, and I'm talking thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of attempts a day from across the globe. The Russians are the most notorious, but Chinese, Iranian - all kinds of players are looking at probing our election system.

So all you have to do is just have that one moment where they penetrate, and now they're inside your systems. If one county clerk clicks on a phishing email and clicks the link that allows an intruder into our system, now using that county computer system, they can then perhaps get into the statewide voter registration system. And perhaps this is what we saw in a state or two's system back in the 2016 election. So we have to train down to the lowest level.

MARTIN: Do you feel there is a sense of urgency on the part of national political leaders about this?

WARNER: Absolutely. I really think there's been somewhat of a false narrative out there that the national people aren't working fast enough or don't care or the states. What I've seen - and I've been at four National Associations of Secretary of State where all of us come together and DHS and DAC, and everybody's come together - we've been on this from day one. As soon as we found out about it in the 2016 election, we've been working this hard, and we've been working together.

MARTIN: But if there is that sense of urgency, Mr. Secretary of State, how do you understand the House Republicans voting down a government spending bill that would've included additional funding for election security? I mean, does that suggest that they're taking this as seriously as you are?

WARNER: There are a number of political reasons why people either vote for something or don't vote for something. I can tell you, from my perspective, it is being taken very seriously. They are getting us what they can when they can. And I hope that there'll be another round of contributions from the federal government.

When it's properly - you know, the funding sources are identified, and the needs and the parameters are set - I'm telling you right now, I wouldn't say that we're using all that we've got. But what they have given us we are pushing hard to get it spent to get the counties to identify what their needs are. There's time for the federal government to react in the future to get us what we need.

MARTIN: That was West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner.

Mr. Warner, thank you so much for speaking with us.

WARNER: Thank you for having me on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.