By Landon PalmerWVSOS Summer Intern
American diplomat Elliot Abrams once said, “Elections matter, but how much they matter depends on how free, open and fair they are.” Fortunately for West Virginia, the Secretary of State’s office takes this sentiment to heart.
The Secretary of State’s duty, amongst many others, is to facilitate a fair election process so that West Virginians can be assured that their votes properly select our local, state and national leaders. Like many things in life, this task is easier said than done. But with the state's 55 county clerks, the diligent employees of the Secretary of State's Office get the mission done magnificently.
After spending my summer interning alongside WVSOS staff, I have a newfound appreciation for the work it takes to run such a comprehensive system of elections, and a much clearer understanding of how the process of running an election extends far beyond the polling place. The features that resonated most with me were the elements of election security, involvement at the municipal level, and our relationship with county officials statewide.
Many people do not realize that election security extends far beyond keeping voting machines and ballot boxes secure on Election Day. Bad actors are constantly looking for new ways to influence our election process, whether it be through the power of social media, or the acquisition of sensitive information through hacking files. I witnessed how technology has become a double-edged sword: it both betters, and endangers, our election systems.
I had the pleasure of working alongside Secretary Warner on a presentation and educational video which we then distributed to every state's chief election official in the country. This presentation focused on Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential Election and the precedent it set for how we protect our election processes moving forward.
Though American voting systems remain secure, the ever-present threat of foreign entities attempting to influence public opinion is still very real. Working on this project with Secretary Warner was such a great learning experience, and as an intern, it was a remarkable feeling to have our work distributed all across the country in preparation for the election of 2020.
I was curious to see West Virginia's Secretary of State observing and assisting elections on every level. From the process that determines who will serve in the Oval Office to who will serve in our county seats, Secretary Warner and his Elections Division are involved every step of the way.
Field representatives for the Secretary of State link the Office to 55 county clerks and 231 municipalities throughout West Virginia. The field reps travel the state working with local officials to ensure elections are conducted properly. I had the opportunity to travel with a field rep to a municipal election in June, and I was impressed by how invested the Secretary of State's Office is, even in the smallest elections.
As a native West Virginian, I found it extremely rewarding to see the state through a different lens. Poll workers were appreciative of our engagement, and understood their election mattered as much to us as it did to them. This outreach enables the Office to bridge the gap between state and local government, and is a necessary discourse to build confidence between the entities.
Over the course of my internship with the Secretary of State, the event I most anticipated was the annual Election Officials Conference held earlier this month. This two-day conference had an attendance of more than 160 officials from every county in the state. Also in attendance were Federal representatives from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Information Sharing and Analysis Center.
My fellow interns and I helped the WVSOS Elections Division prepare presentations to update county clerks and their staffs on election issues. Topics included cybersecurity, campaign finance, poll worker recruitment, civic engagement and new legislation.
Through these trainings, we generated meaningful dialogue between the Secretary of State’s Office and county clerks to improve awareness of election challenges the clerks will face in 2020, and how we can work in tandem to solve them. The Conference allowed this summer's interns (including me!) to share the knowledge we gained through our internships. Conferences like these are a prime example of how active and invested the Office is in what takes place outside the State Capitol, and how much we value communication with our county clerks and other state entities.
I can say with certainty that my summer internship has been the most interesting and unique opportunity of my college education. It has been an honor and privilege for me to be challenged to put my abilities to use in service of the voters and citizens of West Virginia. To witness first-hand the dedication of Secretary Warner and the Secretary of State's Office to the safety and security of our election process has been both humbling and inspiring, motivating me to carry this sense of duty wherever life may take me.
Public servants such as those in the WV Secretary of State's Office pave the way for the future of our state.
Landon Palmer, 21, is a senior at Washington and Jefferson College studying International Studies and Political Science. He is a graduate of Capital High School in Kanawha County.
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