election FILE

Cheyenne residents cast their ballots Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016, at Storey Gymnasium in Cheyenne. Wyoming Tribune Eagle/staff

CHEYENNE – Wyoming and its rural counties could be weak points and therefore prime targets for nefarious actors looking to interfere with future elections in the U.S., according to experts.

That was part of the message delivered Thursday at the Jonah Business Center – the temporary home of the Wyoming Legislature – to lawmakers as part of the National Conference of State Legislatures’ conference on election security.

The meeting connected lawmakers from Wyoming and other Western states to examine issues of election security. It follows a tumultuous 2016 election where the Department of Homeland Security notified 21 states that they were the targets of Russian hackers. And it wasn’t the first election in recent years that saw foreign actors interfering in the U.S. election process, as Chinese hackers targeted Republican Mitt Romney’s failed 2012 presidential campaign.

While Wyoming, the least populated state in the U.S., might not seem like the most appealing state for those looking to interfere in or undermine elections, Caitlin Conley, Defending Digital Democracy Project executive director, told lawmakers it could be seen as a vulnerable and meaningful target.

“When these things happen, it’s probably not just going to be one state,” Conley said. “Guess what: Even if it happens in one state, it’s going to call the process in every other state into question. That’s the same messaging we have when we engage with election officials. A lot of times, we’ll hear, ‘Look, we’re from some rural county no one cares about, no one is going to bother us.’ And we tell them, ‘It doesn’t matter.’ This matters for everyone.”

Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne, is the House chairman of the Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee and attended Thursday’s meeting. It’s unusual, he said, for the National Conference of State Legislatures to hold a meeting in the Cowboy State. The fact Wyoming was chosen as the location indicated power players understand the danger posed to rural states.

“It does highlight the most susceptible place for cybersecurity attacks is probably in the Rocky Mountain West in the least populated states, because we’re not historically as vigilant as we should be,” Zwonitzer said. “It really brings home that we are one nation and we need to be just as vigilant as New York City or Los Angeles on the integrity of elections for this country.”

Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, who chairs the Senate Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee, said Wyoming’s rural counties are trying to figure out how to pay for increasing election costs with less revenue to go around.

The Defending Digital Democracy Project is a product of the Harvard Kennedy School Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs aiming to identify and recommend ways to help states safeguard against interference in elections. Throughout the presentation, its representatives outlined ways state officials can mitigate interference.

Zwonitzer said it’s hard to identify specific actions the Wyoming Legislature could take to protect the integrity of its elections. Wyoming, he said, will never be at the forefront of election security. But Zwonitzer said it will be critical for Wyoming to do what it can to keep up with the pack.

“Legislators here are just as knowledgeable as legislators in other states about how vulnerable we are to an attack,” he said. “An attack can happen when you least expect it, and Wyoming with a rural county with outdated voting equipment that’s still connected to the internet is probably the most susceptible place.”

Joel Funk is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s state government reporter. He can be reached at jfunk@wyomingnews.com or 307-633-3124. Follow him on Twitter at @jmacfunk.

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