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West Virginia's Primary Election is Tuesday, June 9. WVPB will have live news & results available that evening for all of the state-wide races.

Absentee Voting Process Tweak Renews Debate In Secretary Of State Race

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Dave Mistich
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West Virginia Public Broadcasting

All registered voters in West Virginia will be able to use the ongoing coronavirus pandemic as a reason to get an absentee ballot for the November general election. But a tweak in the process of how voters can access those applications — and, thus, an absentee ballot — has revived a debate over voting during the pandemic in the race for West Virginia’s Secretary of State. 

Secretary of State Mac Warner announced Monday that all registered voters can use concerns over the coronavirus pandemic as a reason to vote absentee.  For the Nov. 3 general election, Warner says voters will be able to access that application through an online portal beginning Aug. 11. Voters will also have the option to contact their county clerks and request a ballot by mail, phone or fax, according to a news release from the Secretary of State’s office. 

The announcement highlights slight — but potentially impactful — changes in West Virginia’s pandemic voting process. Just last week, Warner’s office released an “after action review” on the state’s primary election, in which nearly half of ballots cast were done so absentee. 

In the lead up to the state’s June 9 primary election — which was delayed from its original date of May 12 due to the coronavirus pandemic — county clerks mailed applications for absentee ballots to all registered voters. Warner says the newly announced process will eliminate opportunities for fraud.

“We're going to improve that. We're going to let people use a portal where they can apply automatically and that moves about half of the human touches and that's where the errors can occur,” Warner told West Virginia Public Broadcasting by phone Monday evening.

Warner opposes a universal vote-by-mail system for the state, but says he is not opposed to using the mail to vote absentee. The difference, he says, is voters taking the step to complete an application for an absentee ballot.

“We learned there's a lot of problems with the mail system. Nothing against the mail carriers in the post office — they do a wonderful job. In fact, they advertise you know, 96 percent delivery on time rate, so forth — and in the usual world that may be fine,” Warner said. “But in the election world, you just can't have 4 percent or any number of ballots not arriving by election day or the day after with the postmarks and so forth.”

Of the 1.2 million registered voters, 262,503 ballots were requested in the June primary. Of those requested ballots, 224,777 were returned, according to data from the Secretary of State’s office

“If we had sent ballots out to all those people, you would have had 800,000 ballots out there. Think of the opportunities for fraud — not to mention the waste and abuse that occurs in that,” he said. “So I am not a proponent of vote by mail.”

But with Warner up for re-election in November, former Secretary of State Natalie Tennant, a Democrat, said any change in the process between the primary and the general election is unnecessary and will confuse voters. 

“Why would you change a good thing? Why wouldn't you build off of something positive? You can't tell me that this is a good thing. When voters have to learn something new again,” Tennant said. 

Tennant is challenging Warner on the November ballot to regain the position as the state’s top election official and business administrator. She argues that — given the process during the primary — many voters may be anticipating an absentee ballot application to automatically come to them. 

“Changing this right in the middle is changing the rules of the game. It is making West Virginia take a step backward. It's confusing, and it makes it harder to vote,” she said.

Warner says Tennant’s claim has yet to show any real effect on voter turnout. 

“That's a manufactured problem that doesn't exist. We are still three — a little bit more than three months — away from the general election,” he said. “Look back at the primary, we got started about two months out making these decisions and so forth. So we've got a month more.”

Mail-in absentee ballots have become a flashpoint for political debate in the era of the coronavirus with Democrats pushing for wider access and Republicans arguing the option leads to fraud. In West Virginia, a task force — which included Warner and the state’s two federal prosecutors — has landed a guilty plea on an indictment of mail fraud stemming from a postal worker tampering with eight absentee ballot applications ahead of the June primary. 

However, election security experts agree that fraud from mail-in voting is extremely rare. According to MIT political science professor Charles Stewart, fraud is so infrequent that it’s tremendously unlikely to shift the outcome of an election. 

“It's going to be like a drop of food dye in an Olympic swimming pool,” Stewart said by phone Tuesday. “And whether it's a 50-meter pool or a 25-meter pool, it's still going to be just a really small amount. And that's the evidence.”

Stewart said voting by mail during the pandemic has forced many Republican election officials to enact policies that they would likely not have considered under other circumstances.

“What happened during the primary was obviously an emergency. We see a lot of officials — and I would say, a significant number of Republicans such as Mac Warner — undertaking some political risk to themselves, undertaking actions that that many Republicans normally would not take. For instance, you know, mailing the application to everybody.”

But with the pandemic ongoing for some time and voters more used to going out in public and taking care of other business, Stewart believes that more people will actually show up to the polls rather than make use of mail-in absentee ballots in November. 

“It's also going to be the case there's more what's called low-propensity voters — inexperienced voters who are not going to know how to or it's going to be difficult for them to learn how to request the ballot — or maybe to plan far enough ahead of time to get the ballot in time for it to be returned on time,” Stewart said. “So those voters are also going to be more likely to vote in person.”

With two experienced elections officials on the ballot in November, Stewart notes that issues related to mail-in ballots take on a new context. He says the switch from policies before the pandemic — to changes in the primary process and, now, the general — are colored by politics. 

“The point that I'm just trying to make is that, as in much of politics, there is no right answer. There are values that are being traded off in a policy decision like this — as in all policy decisions,” Stewart said. 

West Virginia Public Broadcasting has scheduled a virtual debate for the Secretary of State’s race between Warner and Tennant to take place in early September. The event will air on WVPB television stations at a later date. 

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