Gov. Jim Justice is using his emergency powers to delay West Virginia’s Primary Election until June 9, past the anticipated peak of the coronavirus outbreak.
The governor also extended the closure of state K-12 schools until the end of April.
Both moves put West Virginia in line with federal social distancing guidelines that last until April 30. The most recent goal was April 20.
“It’s a tough situation to extend an election date. No one wanted to do that, but it has to be done,” Justice said during a Wednesday morning news conference.
On the election, Justice said he asked state health leaders if the original May 12 date would be safe for voters and workers to gather at polling places. “The answer was unequivocally no,” he said.
The new June 9 date is the first Tuesday after schools originally would have been closed for the summer in West Virginia.
Justice said that means elections could be conducted in school buildings without concern over spreading the virus between students, voters and poll workers.
He said he still has hope West Virginia students can resume classes in school buildings for at least a few weeks.
“I think if we were only able to go back to school for two or three weeks it would give a great opportunity for closure,” he said.
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 in early May.
That model anticipates 16 coronavirus-related deaths per day in West Virginia at peak and 495 total deaths in West Virginia over the course of the outbreak.
So the May 12 primary election date has been under increased scrutiny.
West Virginia officials had already taken steps to try to avert crowds at polling places.
Secretary of State Mac Warner had previously announced expanded absentee balloting, citing the pandemic as a reason all West Virginians could vote that way. The office is sending absentee ballot applications to all homes.
Warner’s office also has been putting out a call for younger volunteers to serve as poll workers in relief of the traditionally-older poll workers who are in the vulnerable population.
“The first message is, we’ve got this,” Warner said during Wednesday morning’s press conference with Justice.
“Everybody is in this together to make sure this election is run safely. The governor has made the correct call to postpone this.”
Warner did not anticipate the new June date requiring further assessment for safety. Justice said traditional West Virginia voters deserve the opportunity to physically go to the polls as they have always done.
Justice, Warner and Attorney General Patrick Morrisey met more than once the past couple of days before announcing the delayed election this morning.
Morrisey said that under the current health concerns, the governor’s emergency powers allow him to declare a new Election Day, even though it is set in state code. That’s an authority the Secretary of State’s Office had earlier questioned.
“The governor does have the emergency powers to allow him to move this election date because he is trying to protect the public health,” Morrisey said.
Morrisey said the changed date is meant to bolster public confidence in the safety of voting and assure turnout.
“If you have an election and no one shows up, that’s not worth very much,” Morrisey said.
Warner’s predecessor as Secretary of State, Natalie Tennant, said voters expect more detail about the delay. Tennant is running in the Democratic primary in a bid to return to the office.
“Voters deserve to have a clear plan on next steps for our newly delayed primary election. Simple declarations without details equal confusion,” Tennant wrote on Twitter.
“The number one question they’re asking is will registered voters still receive their absentee ballot applications the week of April 6th.”
In a statement distributed this afternoon, state Supreme Court Justice John Hutchison said he supports the decision to move the election.
West Virginia’s judicial races, which are nonpartisan, are settled during primary election balloting. There is no followup in the general election. And there are three seats up this year for West Virginia’s Supreme Court.
“While this move directly affects me as a candidate it is the right decision to protect our people and limit the risk of exposure for voters, election day workers, courthouse staff and others,” Hutchison said.
“This move, coupled with the earlier decision expanding absentee voting opportunities, puts the health, safety and well-being of our people first while preserving the electoral process.”