A polling place in Parkersburg, W.Va. Photo by Lauren Peace

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Retired schoolteacher Denise Kennedy hopes for an economic replacement for the coalfields of her home in Boone County.

In Braxton County, Terry Reynolds, 60, wants elected officials who will find solutions to the opioid crisis.

New Charleston resident Sarah Midle just needs decent broadband.

In Parkersburg, Ivie Minney wants civil rights for gay and lesbian West Virginians.  

Jimmy Carrano, 34, wants scientists, not politicians, to decide climate policies.

And in Flatwoods, 19-year-old Lilly Ware came home from West Virginia University to vote for the first time alongside her parents. “It’s important for my future,” she said.

On Tuesday, Mountain State Spotlight reporters asked West Virginians their thoughts as they went to the polls. Their comments reflected a much richer view of West Virginia than the national media often presents, but also a clear-eyed view of the many challenges the Mountain State faces.

The voting is done. The election, in this state, is all over but for some of the counting.

And now, West Virginia faces the same long list of problems that it did on Nov. 2. Here’s a brief look at some of the big issues on that list, and how some of them might change or might stay the same.

Coronavirus in West Virginia

Americans voted in the midst of a once-in-a-century pandemic that has claimed more than 230,000 lives.

In West Virginia, nearly 500 people have died and new cases are rising.

The reelection of Jim Justice, who soundly beat his Democratic challenger Ben Salango with 64% of the vote, means the continuation of Justice’s contentious plan to reopen the state’s economy, but try to slow the spread of the virus by shutting down schools in communities that become hot spots.

This plan, which has been endlessly tweaked by Justice as he sought to accelerate school reopenings, leaves bars and other businesses open as the virus rages. And public health experts say the criteria Justice is using to decide when to shut down schools “makes zero sense.” 

Still, Justice has stuck with the plan, which has now survived three different legal challenges from parents, who are frustrated with their kids falling behind, and teachers, who say their classrooms are unsafe. Judges ruled that the plan was within the broad powers granted to the governor in a state of emergency, which Justice declared in March and, as of October, is “nowhere close to lifting.”

“We’ve got to live with this,” Justice said in a briefing Monday on the state’s progress in fighting the pandemic. He’s promised to ramp up the state’s testing efforts, which experts say is the key to containing the virus’ spread. 

But the coming months, as Justice enters his second term with overwhelming support from the West Virginia electorate, will present the biggest test yet of these efforts, as winter sends West Virginians indoors and fatigue threatens the effectiveness of public health interventions like quarantines and mask mandates.

Justice also faces political pressure over his plans, or lack thereof, for spending tens of millions of dollars in federal pandemic aid money, even as his own businesses continue to be hit with legal judgments over their financial troubles. — Lucas Manfield

The false promises of coal and natural gas

The state’s political leaders face an economy that’s troubled, in large part because there’s no doubt that West Virginia’s coal industry continues what amounts to a death spiral. In the second quarter of this year, the number of working miners dropped to fewer than 11,000, roughly half of the number less than a decade ago — and a far cry from the numbers not so long ago that sustained generations of coalfield residents with good-paying jobs.

Coal’s decline has long been forewarned by experts. It’s caused far more by low-priced natural gas, the rise of renewable energy, and the depletion of high-quality reserves. But the impact of new regulations remains a rallying-point for the industry’s political allies, and recent research confirms a significant electoral impact, especially relative to the jobs that have been lost.

Gov. Jim Justice speaks to a crowd of workers at the July 2019 signing ceremony for a bill granting a tax break to a coal-fired power plant in Pleasants County. Photo courtesy governor’s office.

Few if any experts project a coal rebound, but some political leaders — Justice and Trump among them — continue to offer those kinds of false promises to West Virginians.

At the same time, the dreams of a petrochemical renaissance driven by the state’s natural gas industry, touted by leaders of both major political parties in West Virginia, have so far mostly not come true.

A presidential victory for Democrat Joe Biden could prompt some changes, though the extent remains unclear. Biden is likely to reinstate some new limits on natural gas drilling, and push to continue to battle climate change and enhance the move to cleaner energy sources.

Around Appalachia, there is a growing discussion of diversifying the region’s energy economy toward renewables and increased investment in creating jobs by cleaning up environmental messes left behind by more than a century of coal mining. — Ken Ward Jr.

Public health 

In West Virginia, elected state officials are slow to prioritize matters of public health that affect the state’s residents, and quick to side with industry over the health care needs of residents in a disproportionately unhealthy state.

Persistent  and long-lasting health crises our state faces are now exacerbated in the midst of COVID-19. 

With access to substance abuse treatment and recovery services hampered by the pandemic, overdose deaths continue to surge. And amid a national mental health crisis, made worse by the social and economic consequences of COVID-19, West Virginians continue to face very serious challenges when it comes to accessing mental health care services of their own

In the last 18 months, two of the state’s major providers of inpatient psychiatric care were lost when hospitals in Wheeling and Fairmont closed. Outpatient services were taken away, too.

The former Ohio Valley Medical Center. Photo by Lauren Peace.

Despite having the highest suicide rate east of the Missisippi, and one of the greatest shortages of mental health providers in the country, there are currently no plans to replace the lost services in the state.

Beyond lost services and hospital closures, broader concerns exist over access to health insurance and the continuation of coverage for people with pre-existing conditions.

Although the results of West Virginia’s statewide elections are in, the fate of health care in West Virginia — and nationally — remains up in the air. 

In a West Virginia race that predominantly centered around the Affordable Care Act (also known as Obamacare), Republican incumbent Patrick Morrisey beat Democratic newcomer Sam Petsonk in the contest for attorney general. Morrisey earned 64% of the vote. 

In the short term, the significance of his victory is more symbolic than immediate.

In 2018, Morrisey joined 17 other Republican attorneys general and signed the state onto a federal lawsuit seeking to repeal the law that provided health insurance to around 180,000 previously uninsured West Virginians and guaranteed coverage to the more than 600,000 West Virginians who live with pre-existing conditions. The case, which has been taken up by the U.S. Supreme Court, argues the unconstitutionality of the ACA based on the removal of the individual mandate, which required citizens to purchase health insurance or pay a fine.

Petsonk aligned himself with health care experts who say the ACA is irreplaceable for West Virginians who benefit from increased access to health care and the billions of dollars the law brings into the state. He said that one of his first actions if elected would have been to remove West Virginia from the lawsuit.

But regardless of the result of the attorney general race, the fate of the ACA is no longer in the hands of elected officials. It will be up to the U.S. Supreme Court, which is set to hear oral arguments for the case on Nov. 10. — Lauren Peace

Poverty

Poverty got little attention from candidates during 2020 campaigns, despite West Virginia being one of the poorest states in the country. Only a handful of candidates brought up the issue while campaigning, and one of those candidates, Kayla Young, pulled off a win Tuesday night.

Young, a Democrat and mother from Charleston, will step into the House of Delegates representing the 35th District as the state grapples with increased unemployment and heightened child hunger linked to the coronavirus pandemic. 

“After we saw the shake out of the Legislature, and the supermajority control for a Legislature that has shown little regard for impoverished West Virginians …I do have hope that we can make policy strides like including vision care in Medicaid expansion, and increasing access to broadband internet,” Young said.

Foster care was also largely ignored during the 2020 races, and it’s unclear if or how state lawmakers will make any changes to the troubled, overburdened system as there’ll be a leadership change in the House Health and Human Resources Committee that typically introduces foster care legislation. 

West Virginia has the highest per capita rate of children in state custody in the United States, and the number of kids has skyrocketed in the wake of the drug crisis. 

State lawmakers touted major reforms to the foster care system in the last two sessions, including a 2019 bill that placed the health care of foster children into a managed-care program run by Aetna, a health insurance company. 

The health committee is currently without a chair, since the resignation earlier this year of Delegate Jordan Hill, R-Nicholas. Delegate Jeffrey Pack, R-Raleigh, is vice chairman and is poised to take on the leadership role. He said when it comes to the future of foster care reform, he’d like to “leave foster care alone for a couple of years” and assess the outcomes of recent changes.

Justice prioritized foster care in his 2020 State of the State address and said he’d hire 87 new Child Protective Services employees to address the state’s CPS worker shortage. The governor’s announcmenent followed a report that CPS staffing issues had led to delayed investigations of child abuse and neglect claims. — Amelia Ferrell Knisely

Little change in an overwhelmingly white, male legislature

Justice is helped by the fact that his own party retained control of both the West Virginia Senate and House of Delegates, and achieved a “supermajority” in both chambers. 

The West Virginia State Capitol Building in Oct. 2020. Photo by F. Brian Ferguson

The state’s representatives, who already skewed heavily male and white, only got more so after Tuesday’s election. The new class of state delegates includes three more men — and three fewer women — than it did previously.

Of the 34 state senators, all but three are men. — Erica Peterson

West Virginia goes overwhelmingly for Trump, congressional Republicans

While Justice’s friend, President Donald Trump, awaits final vote counts in battleground states, West Virginia’s results were never really in doubt. The Associated Press called the race the moment polls closed, and a surge in statewide turnout this year gave Trump 50,000 more votes than he received from West Virginians in 2016. Former Vice President Joe Biden managed 30% of the total vote, a small improvement over Hillary Clinton’s 26 percent four years ago.

West Virginia’s congressional delegation remains unchanged. All three of the state’s Republican U.S. representatives — Carol Miller, Alex Mooney and David McKinley — were reelected, and Republican Sen. Shelley Moore Capito cruised to an easy victory in her campaign for a second term. Sen. Joe Manchin remains the only Democrat in the state’s delegation; he will be up for reelection in 2024. — Ken Ward Jr.

Voting rights and ballot order

Before the general election, voter advocates worried that a change in West Virginia’s absentee ballot process could disenfranchise voters. While it is difficult to know how many people might have been disenfranchised, nearly 800,000 people voted in Tuesday’s election, according to unofficial voter turnout numbers as of Wednesday afternoon..

In the 2016 general election, 732,362 West Virginians voted, which was the previous highest number of voters since at least 2008.

Republicans expanding their numbers in the House of Delegates and state Senate this general election makes it even more unlikely that the state Legislature will consider changes to another election-related matter unless spurred by a court decision.

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. Photo by Douglas Soule

Over the past year, West Virginia Democrats have waged a legal battle over the state’s ballot, saying it gives Republicans an advantage. 

GOP candidates get listed first on the ballot because state law gives preference to the party whose presidential nominee received the most votes in the last election in West Virginia.

This primacy effect gave the candidates who were listed first an advantage of almost 3 percentage points in West Virginia elections (or nearly 6 percentage points, since what’s added to one candidate’s total is taken away from another’s), according to Stanford University political scientist Jon Krosnick. He estimated an 80% to 85% probability that the effect occurs in every West Virginia election.

U.S. District Judge Robert C. Chambers in Huntington ruled that the ballot was unconstitutional and must be changed before the general election. The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals suspended Chambers’ ruling to change the ballot, but has yet to rule on its constitutionality.

Unless a change is mandated by a higher court, state Republicans have indicated that they  would not be in favor of changing the ballot, which was passed in 1991 when Chambers was speaker of the Democratic-majority House of Delegates. 

In the case, state Democrats sued Republican Secretary of State Mac Warner, who is being represented by the Republican state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey’s office, and Republican Kanawha County Clerk Vera McCormick, who is serving as a representative for all ballot commissioners in the state.

Warner easily won a second term on Tuesday, which means this litigation will follow him into a second term. 

It also means some felony voting rights priorities held by advocates continue to contrast with those of West Virginia’s chief elections officer.

In West Virginia, people with felony convictions can vote only after they’ve been released from behind bars and served any period of parole or probation, though they have to re-register. While the decision on whether to revisit this is ultimately up to the Legislature, a Warner spokesman previously told Mountain State Spotlight that while Warner would follow Legislature-set laws, he does not support any change in the felony voting rights law.

Though advocates are pushing for changes. Jeremiah Nelson, the re-entry council coordinator for the West Virginia Council of Churches, said he wants lawmakers to pass a bill during West Virginia’s next legislative session allowing people on parole or probation for a felony offense to vote.

“If they’re paying their taxes, if they’re working, if they’re contributing to society, it’s really discriminating to them,” he said. “You can do the things any other citizen can do, but you just can’t vote.” — Douglas Soule