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Early voting plus crush of absentee ballots make for busy times at West Virginia county clerk offices

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Two different elections at the same time are what several county clerks across West Virginia tell MetroNews they feel like they are overseeing with just more than a week to go until the Mountain State’s June 9th Election Day.

“It’s overwhelming,” said Linda Huggins, county clerk in Preston County. “It is something that it’s just unreal. Everybody in the office feels it.”

Preston County Clerk’s Office

In-person early voting continues through this coming Saturday for the primary and nonpartisan judicial and other elections.

That’s happening while an abnormally large number of absentee ballots, available to all state registered voters because of the coronavirus pandemic which delayed Election Day from the original May 12th date, are being distributed, returned and processed.

As of last Thursday, numbers from the West Virginia Secretary of State’s Office showed 255,199 absentee ballots had been requested in the 55 counties accounting for nearly 21 percent of all registered voters.

A total of 155,923 absentee ballots or more than 12 percent had been returned to county clerk offices.

“It’s crazy,” said Mark Rhodes, county clerk in Wood County. “Everything is just so different right now and elections is one of them.”

Mark Rhodes

In Wood County, the five locations currently being used for early voting were supposed to be the five locations also open on the June 9th Primary Day for all voters no matter where they lived in Wood County.

Another plan, though, was being developed over the weekend after the Secretary of State’s Office said that was not allowed. Designated polling sites for precincts were needed instead.

Typically, Wood County operates 68 precincts on Election Day.

This year, Rhodes anticipated a lower in-person demand since more than 10,000 absentee ballots were requested in Wood County.

“Normally, we only send out, maybe, 400 absentee ballots so that’s come into consideration when it comes to how many people may show up for early voting and Election Day,” he said.

Fewer polling places, he said, would also require fewer pollworkers.

In the 2016 Presidential Primary, 15,968 total people voted in Putnam County.

This year’s absentee ballot requests alone in that county were up above 9,000.

Brian Wood

Brian Wood, the county clerk in Putnam County, said — in many ways — clerks statewide were “running down two roads.”

Preston County typically sees requests for about 160 absentee ballots during a normal election.

As of last week, the county had received more than 5,000 requests.

“Our office is a smaller office compared to maybe other counties and we don’t have just an elections department or voter registration department. We all do it,” Huggins said.

“We used to run the office with one absentee ballot clerk and, right now, all ten of us, including myself, are sitting here and processing them.”

The absentee ballot number was more than five times higher in Kanawha County, West Virginia’s largest county, where, early on in the process, some requested ballot mailings were delayed for different reasons.

Vera McCormick

“Speed’s not our goal. Accuracy is,” said Vera McCormick, county clerk in Kanawha County, of the absentee ballot distribution process.

Since initial ballot mailings, some voters have decided to vote in person, either during early voting or on Election Day.

McCormick was asking for returns of unwanted absentee ballots for official “spoiling” in Kanawha County and the removal of recorded requests for absentee ballots to help keep polling lines moving next Tuesday.

In Wood County, “What we’re actually telling people is to take that absentee ballot to the polls when you go to vote because, if they walk in, it’s going to say that they’ve requested a ballot,” Rhodes said.

“They would have to vote a provisional ballot and then we would have to wait to see if the absentee (ballot) came back before the in-person vote could count.”

That would mean the Election Day ballot would most likely not be counted until the election canvass the following week, not on Election Night.

Requests for absentee ballots must be physically in at county clerk offices by this Wednesday, June 3rd.

Absentee ballots have to be postmarked by Tuesday, June 9th to be counted.

Only ballots arriving at county clerk offices before or on that Tuesday will be included in Election Night counts. The others will be added during canvasses.

Tracking of absentee ballots was available HERE.

For in-person voting, social distancing was part of plans for polls.

Pollworkers were going to have access to personal protective equipment, some of it from the Secretary of State’s Office, like gloves, masks and face shields during early voting and on Election Day.

In Preston County, “We have hand sanitizer supplied. We have cleaning supplies. We are voting on our voting equipment with Q-tips so we don’t have hundreds of different fingers and germs all over our voting equipment,” Huggins said.

Use of personal protective equipment among pollworkers was not mandated in Putnam County, but it was an option, said Wood.

“Without them, we couldn’t have in-person voting and we don’t have a whole lot of people beating down our doors to be a pollworker this go around,” he said.

When MetroNews spoke with Wood, Rhodes and Huggins, they all indicated they had the pollworkers they needed at that point, but were recruiting potential alternates for Election Day.

Voters were to see increased sanitation, spacing and other measures.

“This is the hardest election that we’ve had to deal with,” said Rhodes who has worked in the Wood County Clerk’s Office since 2005, taking over as clerk beginning in 2013.

Wood, out of Putnam County, has 18 years of election experience.

“This is all new. Every county is dealing with it. We’re making lemonade out of lemons,” he said. “We rise to the occasion. We really faced the challenges and are doing well for the circumstances.”

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