A Monongalia County ballot. Absentee ballots began to be sent to West Virginians on Sept. 18, 2020. These ballots list Republicans over Democrats in partisan races. Douglas Soule photo

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Just a few months ago, county clerks in all 55 West Virginia counties mailed applications for absentee ballots for the June 9 primary election to every registered voter.

This was a big change from what usually happens in state elections; it was the result of Gov. Jim Justice signing an executive order in March as COVID-19 cases were just beginning to emerge in the state. And it got results: half of the more than 450,000 West Virginia voters who participated in the primary voted by absentee ballot, according to the Secretary of State’s post-primary report.

This fall, the pandemic continues. Cases have surged in several counties. But the Secretary of State’s office has changed its approach. Rather than sending absentee ballot applications to every voter, they’re encouraging voters to request an absentee ballot using an online portal

Advocates worry  that the change in process, and many West Virginians’ trouble accessing reliable internet, will ultimately lead to voter disenfranchisement.

“While [the online portal] is a welcome option, it will not help many older West Virginians or those without internet access. Mailing ballot applications to voters will keep the process consistent with the primary and create less confusion for voters,” a citizen coalition said in a July 29 letter to Gov. Jim Justice, Secretary of State Mac Warner and West Virginia Association of County Clerks President Linda Higgins.

But Warner didn’t budge. In a Sept. 10 debate hosted by West Virginia Public Broadcasting, he said he had “listened to the clerks,” and that the decision to not mail ballot applications to all registered voters was based on problems county clerks experienced entering paper applications into the digital statewide voter registration system.

The deadline for all absentee ballot applications is Oct. 28. Requests received after the deadline, even if postmarked, cannot be accepted under state law.

Broadband troubles in the pandemic election

With concerns about the efficiency and timeliness of absentee ballot requests using the mail, the Secretary of State’s office moved to create a more streamlined system to transfer documents and data to election officials, according to the post-primary report.

The portal was rolled out on Aug. 11, allowing voters to verify their identity, confirm their registration, and receive their ballot within two to five days, according to a video from the Secretary of State’s office. 

“This remarkable tool will greatly reduce any burden on eligible voters to request an absentee ballot, assist county clerks with processing increases in absentee voting, and reduce errors and lost ballots,” Warner said of the portal in a press release.

The online portal isn’t the only option: voters can also submit a paper absentee request form to their county clerk via mail, email or fax. But the portal is the main process being promoted by the state.

An estimated 18% of West Virginia households  lack a reliable broadband connection, according to the Federal Communications Commission. Official statistics are widely considered flawed, and the number of West Virginians without access to the web is likely higher.

Betty Rivard, a longtime poll worker and resident of Kanawha County, said that she’s voting absentee and attempting to stay at home as much as possible, despite relaxed guidance from the state government. The 2020 cycle is the first time she’s ever voted by absentee ballot.

Rivard shares concerns that the online ballot portal system only expands access to absentee ballots for a minority of the state’s population. 

“They just put too much faith in it,” she said. “The Secretary of State was like ‘this is our answer,’ with just no grasp of what the rest of the state is like. Either no grasp, or they didn’t want to see it.”

West Virginia voters are also faced with somewhat conflicting advice from their government this election: on one hand, the governor has said that “staying at home remains critically important for seniors” and other vulnerable populations; on the other hand, officials aren’t giving residents every possible option to avoid voting in person.

State law does not allow for ballot drop boxes that have appeared as a pandemic election solution in other states, according to state and county officials. 

But the money is available to counties who want to invest in new tools, strategies, and personnel to make voting easier.

West Virginia was granted $3.8 million in CARES Act funding to assist county clerks in safely facilitating the 2020 election season. During the June 9 primary, more than $1.2 million was allocated to 36 counties, leaving a substantial amount of funding to assist counties in November with costs like postage, personal protective equipment, temporary employee pay, and ballot printing.

Activists also remain concerned about the digital signature requirement in the online ballot application. Without clarity as to how county clerks are matching digital signatures to the handwritten signatures on file, voting rights watchdogs are worried these votes may not be counted.

“Absentee ballot applications cannot be ‘rejected,’” said Donald “Deak” Kersey, general counsel for the Secretary of State, in an email. “Rather, if a county clerk determines that an application is legally deficient (e.g. voter’s signature does not sufficiently match the signature on file), the voter is provided a provisional ballot.”

If a voter is issued a provisional ballot, the county clerk also tells them how to correct the problem so that their vote is counted, says Kersey.

Each of West Virginia’s 55 counties matches signatures at the discretion of their own county clerk’s office and canvassing board. The Secretary of State’s guide on canvassing suggests that canvassers should consider age, disability, illness, and other factors when matching voters’ handwriting.

Patchwork county policies

On July 29, the same day that activists expressed concern about the ballot, Kanawha County Commissioners wrote a letter to Warner asking for consistency. They wanted him to implement the same system the state had used in the primary election.

“The decision to eliminate absentee ballot mailings to all voters creates two different systems in the same election cycle,” they wrote. “This is a radical change that will undoubtedly lead to confusion over the absentee process.”

Warner’s office never responded to the commission, said Kanawha County Deputy County Manager Andrew Gunnoe via email.

Despite requesting the Secretary of State replicate the primary ballot application process for the general election, Kanawha County declined to act on its own. The decision rested with County Clerk Vera McCormick, who believed that West Virginia law did not allow for the mailing, according to Commission President Kent Carper. 

But some counties disagreed with McCormick. Clerks in Lincoln and Ohio counties decided to continue the primary election protocol by mailing the ballot application to all of their voters. 

“I know it is a cost but there are a lot of people that may be afraid of going to the precincts,” Ohio County Commissioner Don Nickerson said, according to the commission’s Aug. 25 meeting minutes. Commissioners estimated the cost at around $15,000 from the county budget to send applications to nearly 30,000 voters and approved the measure unanimously.

The Lincoln County Commission and County Clerk’s Office did not respond to requests for comment.

Now, with less than two weeks to go until the state’s absentee ballot request deadline on Oct. 28, only 120,770 voters have requested absentee ballots as of Oct. 13. That’s only slightly more than half of the absentee ballots cast in the June 9 primary.

“With the certainty that we’ll have in-person voting in the General [Election], my unscientific explanation for the difference in response in all counties is simply that voters are more confident that in-person voting will be held safely, securely, and accurately,” secretary of state general counsel Kersey said in an email shared with Mountain State Spotlight.

Julie Archer, a signatory to the July citizen coalition letter and coordinator of WV Citizens for Clean Elections, sees it differently.

“With the threat of COVID greater now than it was in June, and considering we have one of the most at risk populations in the country, it’s inconceivable to me that people would be more comfortable now with the idea of voting in person,” Archer said in an email.

Absentee ballots must be mailed and postmarked by Election Day, or hand-delivered to the County Clerk’s office on Nov. 2, the day before Election Day, November 2, according to the Secretary of State’s website.

Are you having trouble with your absentee ballot? Text “BALLOT” to 304- 413-8889 to learn more about absentee voting, report a problem, or contact your county clerk.