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West Virginia's plan to fight 2022 misinformation


By now, it's become clear that elections have become a flashpoint in American life. We're not just talking about picking between candidates or platforms. We're talking about the administration of elections themselves, where complaints about cheating, conspiracy theories and even threats of violence have become commonplace. A group made up of the top election officials from across the country, both Republicans and Democrats, is trying to address that. Earlier this month, the National Association of Secretaries of State relaunched their #TrustedInfo2022 initiative. Its mission is to, quote, "inform Americans about safeguards at every step of the election process, from registration to voting to post-election procedures," unquote. And as the name implies, the hope is that Americans will turn to election officials to get their information directly, rather than relying on rumors and conspiracies from untrustworthy sources.

We wanted to learn more about the initiative and also how officials are thinking about the upcoming midterm elections, so we've called Mac Warner. He is the secretary of state for West Virginia, the state's top election official. That's a role he's held since 2017, and he is a Republican. Welcome, Secretary Warner. Thanks so much for talking to us.

MAC WARNER: Oh, absolutely, Michel. It's good to be with you.

MARTIN: Tell us a little bit about the initiative and why you think it's important.

WARNER: It's through the National Association of Secretaries of State. And what we found was a few years ago was this intrusion by the Russians and other bad actors trying to penetrate our election systems as well as getting on social media and putting out misinformation and disinformation. And so the secretaries collectively through this national organization said, let's put out the trusted sources. Here's where people can go and get real information that's accurate and can be trusted. And the best source of that is your state and local election officials - so at the state level, your secretary of state or your elections director, or at the local level - and that's really where the elections are held - that's your county clerks and your election directors at your local level. And that's the place to go to get the information.

MARTIN: Have you experienced some of the things that we've been reporting on - I mean, people threatening you? I mean, I have to say that the Republican Party is very dominant in West Virginia. It's a so-called trifecta. Republicans have the governor's office and are the majorities in both houses of the state legislature. You're a Republican. But even having said that, have you experienced this - people threatening you, yelling at you, complaining that you're not doing your job correctly?

WARNER: Well, you do have people who are disgruntled on both sides of the aisle for various reasons. But what we have in West Virginia is a very - there's high confidence in the elections in West Virginia. There was an MIT study done after the 2020 election. We were in the Top 10, maybe even the Top 5, arguably, with confidence from both Republicans and Democrats in how the election was run. We're very proud of the way that the elections were run here, and it shows in the confidence levels. We had the second highest turnout in the state's history in the 2020 election, and that was in the middle of a pandemic. So again, we're quite pleased with the way things turned out.

MARTIN: To that end, though, on your website, you say you're committed to fighting election fraud. In fact, late last year, you launched the See Something, Text Something election security campaign, allowing voters to text - I assume these are allegations of violations - to the secretary of state's investigations division. Because of the efforts that you take - you undertake and that others undertake - statistically speaking, the kinds of voter fraud that Republicans say they're worried about are actually quite small. So what do you need this for? And is there a danger of vigilantism and false accusations that could then become intimidation?

WARNER: We've had examples here in West Virginia of voter fraud, and we can't joke about it. We can't laugh about it anymore. We have to take it seriously. And we are, and all of my 55 county clerks are doing that as well. And I think the proof is in the pudding with the high turnout and the high confidence that we've had in the elections.

MARTIN: Is there a danger of vigilantism and false accusations that could then be intimidating?

WARNER: Well, there's always a possibility, but I'm not saying it is a realistic thing here in West Virginia.

MARTIN: You're a public servant and a veteran. I think you, in a way, kind of reference that as a part of your service. You've been serving as West Virginia's top election official since 2017. A lot seems to have changed since then. I mean, elections themselves have become a flashpoint. There was the violent attack on the Capitol on January 6 that was based on a lie. So I'm going to ask you a couple of questions here. Do you agree that the 2020 election was fairly decided?

WARNER: When you start to put the labels on there, fairly and duly and that sort of thing...

MARTIN: Well, what would you say?

WARNER: ...You have to have a hesitation. The outcome is there. The points are on the board like a football game. If a referee makes a bad call but the points go on the board, you can keep recounting those points all you want and the scoreboard's going to still read the same. But we do need to go back and look at the calls that those referees made. I think we need to look for those inconsistencies and improprieties that were made in a number of different states and learn from that and then get the best practices put in across the state. But the best way to do that is not a 735-page monstrous bill that they just tried to ram down everybody's throats.

MARTIN: I wasn't asking you about the bill, Mr. Secretary. I'm asking you about the 2020 elections, so I'm going to ask you again. Are you continuing to dispute the results of the 2020 election?

WARNER: I am saying we need to look at the way the ballots got into the process and see if those were done appropriately. And the way to do that is to let each of the state legislatures look at their own process and make that determination.

MARTIN: Haven't they done that?

WARNER: They're trying to in a number of different states.

MARTIN: I mean, you have said yourself that there really is no factual basis for these complaints about fraud, especially in your state. And you are a part of an association that works to develop and maintain best practices. So where is this coming from, or are you legislating based on people's feelings as opposed to the facts?

WARNER: Well, I haven't said that there weren't any improprieties. In fact, I could name a number of improprieties that occurred. And there are differences between irregularities and improprieties and outright fraud. And what I'm saying is, I think that there were improprieties in a number of states and that those need to be looked at.

MARTIN: There's complaints of voter fraud on the one hand, and there are complaints of voter intimidation and suppression on the other hand. Are there steps that should be taken to address that second set of concerns, that specific voters specifically are - there is an attempt to intimidate or discourage specific groups of people from voting? Is there something that you think should be done to address that?

WARNER: Again, the answer is in the state legislatures. And we shouldn't try to take everything that went bad or people got away with in one state or another and lump it into a 735-page bill, which is what was attempted. So we want to get a proper balance between access to the polls and security in the process or integrity of the process. And the way - the place to do that, according to the U.S. Constitution, is in the state legislature of each of the states.

MARTIN: That is the secretary of state of West Virginia, Mac Warner. He's the state's top election official. Mr. Secretary, thank you so much for talking with us. It's been a really interesting conversation. I appreciate you.

WARNER: Absolutely. Always good to be with you, Michel.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLOOD ORANGE SONG, "IT IS WHAT IT IS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.