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Government

Voting Laws Debated On National, State Level

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Eric Douglas
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WVPB
Former Secretary of State Nathalie Tennant speaking at a press conference in support of the Freedom to Vote Act.

A record 158 million people voted in the 2020 presidential election. That makes up six out of every 10 people of voting age and two thirds of the estimated registered voters in the country.

Since the last election, several GOP-led states have passed laws that limit who can submit mail-in ballots and vote early. At the same time, U.S. Senate Democrats are pushing to loosen restrictions on a federal level with proposed laws like the For the People Act.

But that bill hasn’t made it to the Senate floor yet for a full vote, and some leaders say it likely never will. Some of the more contentious elements in it are that it would require all states to have same-day voter registration, alternative options to voter IDs, and a 15-day mandatory early voting period.

In a statement, Republican Sen. Shelly Moore Capito says the federal act is unnecessary, as a record number of voters turned out in 2020. Capito says this proves that states are capable of passing adequate election and voter rights laws.

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Sen. Shelly Moore Capito

capito“The so-called ‘For the People Act’ is a despicable, disingenuous attempt to strip states of their constitutional right to administer elections, and should never come close to reaching the president’s desk,” she said. “Simply put, this was never about getting more people to vote, but rather a way for Democrats in Congress to power grab and fix problems that do not exist.”

A compromise piece of voting legislation, called the Freedom to Vote Act, has been introduced into Congress as well. It differs from earlier legislation with new protections against voter suppression, restores Election Day as a public holiday, and institutes automatic voter registration.

But last month the U.S. Senate voted down an attempt to close debate on the law. That vote was 49 in favor of moving it forward and 51 opposed, even though the bill had 50 sponsors. U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer switched his vote to a no so he could bring it back up for another vote later. Until that procedural vote happens, the bill cannot move forward.

In a statement, West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner referred to the Freedom to Vote Act as "nothing more than a watered-down version of the ‘For the People Act.’"

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West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner

"The ‘Freedom to Vote Act’ is a solution in search of a problem," Warner said. "It is nothing more than an attempt to circumvent the authority placed on state legislatures by the U.S. Constitution.”

But West Virginia Democratic legislators and activists are still pushing for the Freedom to Vote Act. They recently held a press conference on the street outside of the Kanawha County Voter Registration Office in Charleston.

Former Secretary of State Natalie Tennant put pressure on Sen. Joe Manchin to push the act over the line.

Inaction is not an option. Now, I'd like to take credit for those words. But I can't. Do you know whose words they are?” Tennant asked the crowd. “Senator Manchin. Do you know whose bill this is? Senator Manchin.”

Tennant referred to the fact that Manchin was an original sponsor of the Freedom to Vote Act and negotiated it as a compromise. Since Republicans blocked it, Manchin has balked at changing voting rules in the Senate to get it past the filibuster.

In the meantime, Warner and the 55 West Virginia county clerks have been addressing election security in the state.

Since January 2017, more than 364,000 deceased, outdated, out of state, duplicated, and convicted felon voter files were removed from the voting rolls, according to data from the secretary of state’s office.

“Almost 28 percent of our list was inaccurate,” according to Mike Queen, deputy chief of staff in the Secretary of State’s office. “In the last election, we had 802,000 people to vote. That was 75 percent of those who were eligible, and that made us one of the highest states in the nation.”

Queen says this proves West Virginia can maintain voting and election integrity, without new federal legislation.

Over the same four and a half-year period, county clerks have registered 255,000 more people to vote, including 64,000 18-year-old high school students. That leaves the net number of registered voters about 100,000 lower than before they began purging the voting rolls. As of October, there were currently 1,129,510 registered voters in West Virginia.

One sticking point for many Republicans in the proposed Freedom to Vote act is same-day voter registration.

“We can't have same-day registration in West Virginia. We don't have an internet connected system,” Queen said. “And the real challenge for any same-day registration is to make sure that they don't register at one place in Greenbrier County, and then register again, up in Harrison County.”

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Kanawha County Del. Jim Barach

Kanawha County Delegate Jim Barach said that same-day registration should be a right -- no matter what it takes.

“We should just automatically have the right to vote,” Barach said. “If you are 18 or over and an American citizen with very few exceptions, you should be able to go to a polling place, you should be able to register on that day, you should be able to cast a ballot. And that's all there is to it.”

With the Freedom to Vote act stalled, that leaves voter rights laws in the hands of individual states. During the legislative interim meeting of the Joint Standing Committee of the Judiciary earlier this week, state senators and delegates discussed the state’s election laws at length.

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Deak Kersey, general counsel for the secretary of state speaking to the Standing Committee on the Judiciary during legislative interim meetings.

“These bills have been crafted at the request of various folks, whether it be a member or someone in leadership or a community member, the county clerk, whoever it might be,” said Deak Kersey, general counsel for the secretary of state. “These aren’t just ideas that we sat around with the secretary and put on paper.”

He noted this was the first time in his memory that the legislature had taken the time to discuss voting law changes this early in the year, rather than waiting until the legislative session was going on. He felt the change was a positive one.

Because of the national interest in election changes and the fact that the Department of Justice is even suing some states for election law changes that they've made,” Kersey said. “We want good election laws, not bad election laws.”

Proposed laws before the legislature include changing the deadline for requesting an absentee ballot from six to 12 days, and putting into law a provision that voting machines cannot connect to the internet. It is already a policy, and Kersey says this is to avoid potential hacking and fraud.

These proposed rules, among others, will come before the full legislature in January.


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