CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Consensus is building to delay West Virginia’s primary election, which is currently scheduled just a couple of weeks after the projected peak of the spread of coronavirus.
Gov. Jim Justice has said several times recently that he is concerned about the proximity of West Virginia’s May 12 primary election to an anticipated peak of coronavirus cases, but he has not yet made a public push to postpone the election.
The governor met Tuesday afternoon with Attorney General Patrick Morrisey and Secretary of State Mac Warner, but no conclusion was announced right away.
Warner has emphasized widespread use of absentee ballots to cut down on Election Day crowds and has questioned whether the executive branch has the authority to change the date. But Warner has said he will work with county clerks if the governor or the Legislature push back the date.
And the Legislature’s consensus over delaying the election appears to be growing.
Senate President Mitch Carmichael, in a telephone interview Tuesday evening, said moving Election Day is probably the wisest course. House Minority Leader Tim Miley said there’s significant support among legislative Democrats to delay the election for a few weeks.
“In an abundance of caution, I would support that move,” said Carmichael, who said he reached that conclusion after reviewing the projected peak of the virus, examining what other states are doing and speaking with Senate Majority Leader Tom Takubo, R-Kanawha, who is a doctor.
“I am supportive of moving the election,” said Carmichael, R-Jackson.
Miley said the Democratic minority in the House of Delegates favors a delay.
“I believe the House Democratic caucus would support moving the election date,” said Miley, D-Harrison, who suggested another provision for these unprecedented times. “In any event, I do believe they also support providing mail-in ballots.”
Not all legislative leaders agree a delay is necessary.
House Majority Leader Amy Summers, R-Taylor, said Election Day should continue six weeks from now because the Secretary of State’s office has made accommodations through widespread use of absentee ballots.
“Poll workers and courthouse staff can follow the 6-feet rule and wash their hands as recommended and make sure not to touch their face between hand washings,” said Summers, an emergency room nurse. “Perhaps the state could also furnish hand sanitizer at each location as well.”
Justice, during comments in press conferences the past couple of days, indicated he has been weighing a decision.
“Moving an election is a really serious, serious thing,” Justice said during a Tuesday afternoon news briefing, prior to meeting with Morrisey and Warner.
But the governor noted that President Trump’s extension of social distancing guidelines to April 30 means that with a May 12 election, “you don’t have a lot of room.”
Data analysis of all 50 states by The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, which is affiliated with the University of Washington, predicts that West Virginia will reach peak use of resources to cope with the virus on May 1.
Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper earlier this week cited concerns about the health of poll workers, who are often older citizens. The Secretary of State’s office responded that it has taken all steps within its power to assure a safe election.
“The unfortunate truth of this situation is that neither I, nor the Governor, can predict this virus and its long-term impacts,” Warner wrote. “We cannot know whether the potential health hazards will be any better on the date to which we might postpone or extend the election.”
Warner’s letter questioned whether the executive branch has the statutory authority to deviate from Election Day as it is defined in state code. But he wrote that if the governor concludes a delay is in the best interests of the state, then his office will assist “with properly planning and administering the election at a later date.”
“Similarly, if the Governor determines the statute establishing election day is not a ‘regulatory statute and thus is beyond his executive power to effectuate such an order, I am fully prepared to assist the Legislature at a special session during this time of emergency.”
Carmichael said he believes, given the pandemic, that the governor could move Election Day without requiring legislators to gather in special session.
“I think his emergency powers are sufficient to move the election date without legislative action,” Carmichael said.
Delegate Isaac Sponaugle, in a news release distributed a couple of weeks ago, said the election should be delayed by 30 to 60 days. Sponaugle is running in the Democratic primary for Attorney General.
Sponaugle, D-Pendleton, at the time proposed an immediate special session that could include additional agenda items such as an emergency small business relief fund plus appropriations to deal with the unanticipated effects of the health crisis on the state budget.
But without an Election Day delay, Sponaugle said, poll workers and voters won’t want to show up.
“I hope the governor acts sooner rather than later,” Sponaugle said. “The coronavirus isn’t going away between now and May 12, so why keep the issue floating around out there. Fix it now.”
House Health Committee Chairman Jordan Hill, R-Nicholas, agreed a delay is necessary.
“Elections are a very serious matter and we should treat them as such. They are the bedrock of our Republic, which is why I believe we should delay it,” Hill stated.
Doing so would give candidates more opportunity to actually meet voters face-to-face, Hill said. And he took note of the president’s extension of social distancing precautions until the end of April.
“And even if the pandemic is over by then, it is very close to Election Day,” Hill said. “I think pandemic fears will still be lingering, which will drive voter turnout down and the election will not reflect the true will of the electorate. It will put into question the legitimacy of the election.”
Stephen Smith, a Democratic candidate for governor, tweeted on Tuesday night his support for a bolstered absentee balloting system that would still keep the primary at May 12.
“The only safe election, for voters and poll workers, is one where all West Virginians vote from home,” Smith wrote on the social media platform.
“If safety is Justice’s top priority, moving the election date will have no clear impact on the safety of polling places. In fact, as the virus progresses, a postponement of the Primary may make for sites that are *less safe.*”