West Virginia’s primary election is historic, and historically quirky.
A lot is on the line on Election Day, which is officially Tuesday.
There are competitive races for governor, including against the incumbent who was first elected as a Democrat but now is running as a Republican.
There are three state Supreme Court seats on ballots, including two 12 year terms and another unexpired four-year term — making 28 years and the majority on the line for a five-member court just a couple of years removed from scandal.
And all of this is happening against a backdrop of a pandemic that has changed all aspects of life, including the norms of the election.
“We have an important election and suddenly it’s overshadowed by the context of the virus. The question is, what impact will that have. Will this discourage people?” said Robert Rupp, a political science professor at West Virginia Wesleyan College.
“It’s not who is running, but it’s how the voter’s voting. So the spotlight has shifted over to the voters.”
Precautions prompted a delay of the election by a month, so that Election Day now falls this Tuesday, June 9.
Social distancing has made traditional campaigning a challenge for candidates who have found themselves on Zoom instead of out shaking hands.
And voters are behaving differently too.
West Virginia’s Secretary of State made absentee balloting far more flexible this year, so that any registered voter who considered themselves affected by the coronavirus could request an absentee ballot.
By midday Friday, the Secretary of State’s office said a total of 262,441 West Virginia voters had applied for an absentee ballot.
Of those, 191,346 had already returned their completed ballots.
Absentee voters in this primary election make up about 15.6 percent of the state’s registered voters.
In the last West Virginia presidential primary, 2016, fewer than 6,700 registered voters participated by absentee ballot.
“West Virginia offers voters more options to cast a ballot than any other state in the nation,” Secretary of State Mac Warner stated. “Working with our county clerks, we are making sure that every option is safe and secure.”
Completed absentee ballots must be postmarked by June 9 to be counted in the 2020 Primary.
The absentee ballots may not be counted until after the polls close on Election Night.
West Virginians could also vote in person, of course.
The early voting period was coming to a close at 5 p.m. Saturday.
Election Day polls open 6:30 a.m. and close 7:30 p.m.
“With record numbers of people exercising absentee and early voting options, we do not anticipate long wait times at polls,” Warner stated. “We also recommend voters wear a mask to protect others if they choose to do so.”
High voter interest
Voters have been engaged because of expanded balloting and because of what’s at stake, said Gaylene Miller, state director of AARP West Virginia.
The organization for aging or retired people has had forums via telephone town hall and Facebook to answer help questions like “What if I haven’t gotten absentee ballot?” or “What kind of precautions being taken at polling places?”
“I credit the county clerks and the chief elections officer for the work they’ve done to make our election free, fair and safe,” Miller said.
Interest in the election is heavy, she said.
“It’s really high,” Miller said. “I think once folks learned that this is the election that will decide three of the Supreme Court justices, that really got folks’ attention.
“In most years, the primary is just to decide who the candidates are for the general. But this one also decides the Supreme Court justices. It’s pretty significant, and our voters really have an interest in that.”
Three big Supreme Court seats
The Supreme Court races come just two years after a scandal over misspending rocked the court, leading to the resignation of three justices.
The court’s five members serve 12-year terms, so the results of this election could shape the newly-formed court for years to come.
And because judicial elections are nonpartisan in West Virginia, there is no general election. This is voters’ only chance to decide who deserves these long terms.
“The whole idea of the Supreme Court – we’ve had the impeachment crisis and now the majority, three members will be decided in one lousy primary election,” Rupp said.
Two of the seats on the ballot are for full terms, including one where no incumbent is running because current Justice Margaret Workman is leaving after her second stint.
The third is the remaining four years on the term of former Justice Allen Loughry, who was convicted on federal fraud charges.
Other significant races include the Republican and Democratic primaries for governor.
Gov. Jim Justice is running for re-election as a Republican. He won election in 2016 as a Democrat before changing parties a few months into his term.
He is running in a field that has nine Republican candidates including former state Commerce Secretary Woody Thrasher and former Delegate Mike Folk.
When’s the last time an incumbent governor was serious challenged in the primary?” Rupp asked.
“Usually the incumbent is not challenged. This is history. The incumbent’s being seriously challenged.”
The Democratic side also features a vigorous contest with six candidates.
Those include state Senator Ron Stollings, a physician from Boone County, Kanawha County Commissioner Ben Salango, who is a lawyer, and community organizer Stephen Smith, who is running on a progressive platform with like-minded candidates called “West Virginia Can’t Wait.”
“Both political parties have to make major decisions about who their nominee is. There are serious differences between the contenders in each one and it will have serious implications for the future,” Rupp said.
“We’re not just talking about who will be the nominee for the Democratic and Republican Party. What is really at stake is the direction of the Democratic and Republican Party.”
Waiting for winners
Who will the winners be in this historic election? All the uncertainty — particularly the unprecedented numbers of absentee ballots — means final results might still be foggy on Election Night.
Rupp recalls back in the old days, four years ago or so, when political observers would gather for some finality after months of campaigning.
Maybe not this year.
“On Election Night you go down to the courthouse and you watch the returns come in,” he said. “There’s kind of a ritual involved. Now it’s gonna be midnight and close up the courthouse and say ‘We’re not done counting.’ It’s just one more thing that makes this a very unusual election.”