House committee passes Supreme Court election runoff bill

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday approved a bill to mandate a runoff for state Supreme Court elections where no candidate earns a clear majority vote. It also OK’d a bill to ensure people unable to leave their homes to vote can receive an emergency absentee ballot.

Tim Armstead

The Supreme Court bill is HB 2008. It says that if no candidate in a Supreme Court election receives more than 40 percent of the vote in the May election, the two highest vote-getters will face off in a runoff in November.

If passed by both chambers, it would take effect in time for the 2020 election. It would also apply to special elections occurring after that date.

In the November 2018 election two filled the unexpired terms of two vacant court seats, neither winner scored 40 percent. Former House Speaker Tim Armstead won his division with 26.05 percent of the vote; runner-up Joanna Tabit received 22.21 percent.

Former Congressman Evan Jenkins won his division with 36.01 percent – a bit closer to 40. He also won by a wider margin; the runner-up, Dennise Smith, earned 13.92 percent.

Evan Jenkins

In explaining the bill, committee counsel said it’s a way to ensure people don’t question the validity of an election.

The bill passed quickly and unanimously, with no debate. It goes to the full House.

The absentee ballot bill is HB 2362. Current law allows county clerks to employ special poll workers to deliver emergency absentee ballots, upon request, to voters in hospitals or healthcare facilities within 35 miles of the county seat or in an adjacent county, or to voters in a nursing home within the county.

HB 2362 would extend that to voters confined to a specific location within the county – typically their home – within seven days of the election. It would apply to a voter confined with an illness or injury; a physical disability; or an immobility due to advanced age.

House Judiciary is known for hashing over fine details at length, and this time they spent about 30 minutes on a proposed amendment to the age provision. It was originally written “physical disability or immobility due to extreme advanced age.”

It was offered on the idea that someone who’s 19 or 20 may be immobilized as well as someone of advanced age, so the phrase was unnecessary. However, they learned that the phrase “extreme advanced age” was taken from another section of code regarding absentee ballots in general.

Barbara Fleischauer

Then they puzzled over whether the phrase extreme advanced age, which is undefined, applied to just immobility or also to physical disability. They solved the problem by separating disability and age-related immobility into two separate qualifications.

Members and representatives of the secretary of state’s office said this bill is intended to extend the opportunity to vote to people who have the right but would be otherwise deprived access.

Delegate Barbara Evans Fleischauer, D-Monongalia, said her neighbor had worked the polls for 60 years, but developed cancer and was receiving hospice care at home. Because she wasn’t in a hospital, she couldn’t receive an absentee ballot.

This bill would serve people like her, Fleischauer said, who are “ill but regard the right to vote as sacred.”

It passed by voice vote, with one nay, and goes to the full House.

Other bills

HB 2423 prohibits certain sex offenders on supervisory release from overseeing children.

It applies to convictions of first-degree sexual assault or abuse, such as rape leading to injury, rape with a weapon, rape of minors under 12, among other offenses.

As introduced, it applied to oversight of “groups of children, including, but not limited to, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, 4H organizations, sporting and scholastic teams, music, sporting and theatre groups and camps, and summer day camps.” Delegate Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, successfully amended in religious groups.

Before that amendment, Delegate Pat McGeehan, R-Hancock, asked if it would prevent a bishop convicted of child sex abuse from performing mass. Committee counsel said he believed it would. MeGeehan’s one-word response was, “Good.”

The bill passed unanimously and goes to the full House.

SB 2003 aims to allow offenders convicted of certain nonviolent felonies to seek expungement of their records after a prescribed time period, in order to be able to more effectively seek work. This bill and its Senate counterpart, SB 152, continue efforts to this effect begun in previous years.

Senate Judiciary sent an amended version of its bill, which spells out the excluded offenses, to the full Senate, where it is up for first reading on Thursday, Jan. 17.

Shott assigned the House bill to a subcommittee to review SB 152, bring in expert witnesses and massage it to be ready for action when SB 152 reaches the House next week.
David Beard/The Dominion Post

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