A line of early voters in Charleston, W.Va. on October 28, 2020. Photo by F. Brian Ferguson

Some West Virginia lawmakers want to move up deadlines for absentee and early voting, and require state government to approve information about elections and other political messages posted on social media.

Senate Bill 565, sponsored by Senator Rollan Roberts, R-Raleigh,  includes multiple changes to West Virginia voter registration law. Across the country, GOP-led state legislatures are placing new restrictions on early voting.

West Virginia’s bill  moves up the time period for early voting so that it no longer includes the Friday and Saturday before an election, makes the deadline earlier for registering for an absentee ballot, and ends the state’s years-long efforts to implement automatic voter registration at West Virginia Division of Motor Vehicles offices.

House Bill 3307, sponsored by Delegate Daniel Linville, R-Cabell, would require social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter to receive permission from the secretary of state before sharing election information. It would also let the secretary of state’s office refuse to let platforms delete candidate and party profiles, and forbid platforms from using information they know about users to show them content targeted more toward one political persuasion over another. 

The two bills limit not only what messages voters may receive about candidates via social media prior to an election, but could also reduce turnout, according to advocates for voting access.

Mike Queen.

Mike Queen, a spokesman for the Secretary of State’s office, said, among other reasons, that Senate Bill 565, sponsored by Sen. Rollan Roberts, R-Raleigh, will help ensure elections go smoothly, and that House Bill 3307 is needed because Facebook posted inaccurate logistic information about West Virginia elections.

But Julie Archer, who works on voting access issues for the advocacy organization Citizen Action Group, worries the bills will lead to fewer and misinformed voters.

“It’s taking us in the wrong direction,” she said, of the voter registration bill. “We should be taking down barriers to participation, not making it harder for people.”

The voter registration bill

Under Senate Bill 565, the state would move the early voting period further out from the election: the bill would make it the 7 to 17-day period before an election, while it’s currently the 3 to 13-day period before Election Day.

The bill also would eliminate West Virginia’s automatic voter registration program, which was approved by the Legislature several years ago but never implemented.

“They’re not thinking about the voters when they’re proposing these changes,” Archer said in an interview Tuesday.

Julie Archer.

She noted that the weekend before Election Day is one of the most popular times to vote. Groups regularly hold get-out-the-vote events during those days.

“We have had early voting in West Virginia for nearly 20 years,” she said. “People are used to early voting being available on those days, and now we’re going to take it away. We think it’s going to be a recipe for confusion for voters.”

In an interview Tuesday, Queen said that provision is needed because of new efforts to make poll books electronic, and those electronic poll books will need to be updated Monday for a Tuesday election. He noted that voters will still have two Saturdays to vote early.

The bill also tightens the deadline to vote absentee, from six days to 11 days before the election. Queen said the move was based on guidance from the U.S. Postal Service on how long it takes to get ballots back for Election Day counting. 

Ann McDaniel, director of the West Virginia Statewide Independent Living Council, said moving up the absentee ballot application deadline and the time period for early voting could present more challenges for people with disabilities. 

Ann McDaniel

She noted that information about candidates is more available closer to the election, and some polling locations are still not accessible for people with disabilities.

“People with disabilities who can’t get to the polls need as much help as they can get to be able to access the opportunity to vote,” she said. “And so anything that makes it harder can be a problem.”

Bill Carpenter, executive director of the Lincoln County Senior Center and the head of West Virginia Directors of Senior and Community Services, said he’d need to talk to more seniors to address the specific legislation.

But he said some seniors already face challenges getting to polling locations.

“If you’re Republican they’ll drive you or if you’re a Democrat they’ll drive you,” he said. “If you’re the opposite, they wouldn’t.”

The bill also ends West Virginia’s automatic voter registration law . While West Virginians can already register to vote at Department of Motor Vehicles offices, that 2018 law asked voters to either “opt out” or be automatically registered when visiting those locations. The measure was never implemented due to technical problems including outdated equipment.

Archer said it was her understanding those problems have been solved.

Logan Riffey, the legislative affairs officer for West Virginia University’s Student Government Association, said these changes could result in less student turnout.

Logan Riffey

Young people can sometimes be less engaged, and they move often, he said, so new deadlines for absentee ballot applications and early voting could also result in some being left out.

Riffey, who organizes voter registration drives at WVU, said many students from out-of-state are unaware they can register to vote in-state.

“Voting is something that all of us have the right to do,” Riffey, a sophomore, said. “We’re all part of this process.”

Queen responded that thanks to a state program put in place four years ago, educators also register young people in West Virginia schools, and that voter registration is available online at govotewv.com.

He added that automatic voter registration at DMV offices puts stress on county clerks because of duplicate registrations.

Senate Bill 565 passed the West Virginia Senate in a 28-5 vote last week. It’s now awaiting consideration by the House of Delegates judiciary committee, which could also choose not to take up the bill.

The social media bill

Elected officials throughout the country have criticized Twitter and Facebook’s decisions to throw former President Donald Trump off their platforms for provoking violence on their platforms following the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, as well as those platforms’ restrictions on other candidates and users. Secretary of State Mac Warner, a Republican, also spoke at a “Stop the Steal” rally in Charleston in December that perpetuated Trump’s false allegations about election improprieties. 

But Warner’s office, which is pushing both the bill related to voter registration and a bill limiting social media’s role in elections said neither is in response to the recent election.

Spokesman Mike Queen said House Bill 3307 is needed because sites like Facebook want “to be considered a trusted source of election information and they are not.”

Linville, the bill sponsor, said on the House floor Wednesday that other candidates, including those in West Virginia, have been affected by social media termination policies. He said the bill ensures social media platforms that disseminate political information will be treated similarly to other media platforms. The bill would still need to pass the state Senate to become law.

“Social media platforms should neither profit nor pay for West Virginia elections and our elections are simply not for sale,” Linville said.

He said Facebook’s termination policy had affected delegates “for no discernible reason” and that those delegates deserved “at least a modicum of due process.”

Delegate Todd Longanacre, R-Greenbrier, said his account was deactivated weeks before the election. 

Longanacre said Facebook deactivated his account after he signed a petition on Sept. 27 stating that the Ku Klux Klan was a terrorist group. He said that he wrote, before signing the petition, that he also wanted to see Black Lives Matter be considered a terrorist group.

Longanacre said his decision to follow a page about QAnon, a baseless conspiracy theory about Democratic Party leaders and others, may have also been a factor. After purging thousands of QAnon-related accounts last year, Facebook said on Oct. 6 that it would delete all accounts “representing” QAnon.

“It’s very fortunate that I’m even here right now,” Longanacre said, referring to his position in the Legislature. “I had to go actually knock on a lot of doors. I found a lot of hollers and ridgetops in my district that I didn’t even know existed, while my two opponents had the advantage of sitting home and using Twitter and Facebook.”

Delegate Jim Barach, D-Kanawha, argued that most people who lose access to their accounts have posted some sort of conspiracy theory. Delegate Sean Hornbuckle, D-Cabell, said he had issues with Facebook but he “kept on trucking.”

Among other provisions, House Bill 3307 requires social media companies to “disseminate election content uniformly to each user without regard to geography or user demographics, including data associated with the user’s online activity, information gathered or received by the social media platform from any source, or users’ perceived political preferences or party affiliation.”

Companies could terminate accounts that promote speech that is obscene, pornographic or incites violence; whether the speech incited violence would be “determined by the State Election Commission.”

The state could fine platforms $100,000 fines per day per violation, by considering violations to be political donations and subjecting them to campaign finance laws.

Some lawmakers have said the bill would be difficult to enforce. Queen argued that the bill could be enforced because it subjects social media platforms to disclose “in-kind” contributions, such as favoritism of one party or another.

But platforms like Facebook use algorithms, meaning formulas to determine who would be receptive to engaging with content. Queen conceded it could be difficult to make Facebook turn over their algorithms. 

“Well, you couldn’t force them, to be honest, no,” he said, adding that the  bill would help “people realize that these essential media companies are using the data that we’re giving them.”

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the current early voting time before an election.

Erin Beck is Mountain State Spotlight's Community Watchdog Reporter.