CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Thousands of West Virginians have voted by mail for the first time this year and many of them have now done so twice in the last four months.
The usually restrictive absentee voting process was opened to all registered voters in the Mountain State for both the June primary and November general elections because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and West Virginians have taken advantage of the opportunity.
Approximately 225,000 residents voted mail-in absentee for the June election and more than 150,000 voters had requested an absentee ballot heading into Wednesday, the last day to request a ballot for the Nov. 3 vote.
Secretary of State Mac Warner changed the request process after the June election. Those requests for general election ballots have been made via an online portal on Warner’s office’s website or by a direct request to the voter’s county clerk. The change has been an issue in Warner’s reelection bid against former Secretary of State Natalie Tennant.
Tennant said during a debate between the two in the eastern panhandle earlier this month changing the process mid-stream has hurt voter confidence.
“We shouldn’t have to force voters to choose between their health and their right to vote,” Tennant said. “The applications should have been sent as they were in the primary.”
Warner said the decision was made after speaking with county clerks after the June vote. He said processing the thousands of postcards was labor intensive and expensive. He said the online process, which included more than 65,000 requests for ballots as of Wednesday morning, has been much cleaner.
“It’s working extremely well,” Warner said. “Just because you win one time doesn’t mean you use the same game plan the second time around. When you listen to the clerks and they tell you to change the game that’s exactly what I did. I listened to the clerks,” Warner said.
A few county clerks, including Lincoln County Clerk Direl Baker, decided to follow the June pattern for absentee applications. Baker told MetroNews he made the decision with the Lincoln County Commission in order to keep things consistent with the June vote.
“We just thought it was the right thing to do (because of COVID-19). We thought it would possibly slow the curve down with people coming in on election day. They (the Lincoln County Commission) had some extra CARES money and we decided to go ahead and send those out,” Baker said.
Baker said the absentee process is labor intensive and that could the reason some clerks decided against repeating the June election process.
“It’s designed to be secure. It’s not really designed for volume,” he said. “It’s kind of a long drawn out process. It’s a secure one but it’s just a lot of work.”
As of Wednesday, more than 11% of Lincoln County’s registered voters, 1,450 had requested mail-in absentee ballots and 84%, 1,218 had been returned.
“That’s a great return rate” Baker said.
Counting mail-in ballots
State law allows county clerks to begin processing mail-in ballots before election day but they can’t be tabulated until polls close election night. Secretary of State General Counsel Deak Kersey said current state law has the state well-positioned to count mail-in absentee ballots that have an election day postmark.
“As long as your ballot is postmarked by election day it will be counted and accepted if it’s received by the clerk’s office by canvass,” Kersey said.
Canvassing of votes usually begins for most counties five days after election day.
Kersey is urging voters to get their ballots before Nov. 3. They can mail them in or drop them at their local county clerk office.
U.S. Senator Joe Manchin said there’s a chance final results in some races won’t be known on election night because of a large number of mail-in ballots.
“Because of the health crisis, the pandemic, we’ve never had this many people voting by mail. That takes a little longer to count and basically they can’t start counting in some states until election day. It may be two or three days,” Manchin said.
The senator added the presidential election isn’t finalized until the votes of the Electoral College during the second week of December.
The Oregon Voting Trail
The State of Oregon has had mail-in voting for all of its registered voters for two decades. Oregon Secretary of State Chief of Staff Cameron Smith told MetroNews mail-in voting has been a “god-send” for his state.
“All of us have busy lives but it really, not to one party’s benefit or the other, has significantly increased turnout for our elections here in Oregon,” Smith said.
All registered voters in Oregon receive their ballots three weeks before the election. They can mail those ballots back in or put them in secure community drop boxes and if they would rather vote in person, they can take that ballot to designated locations and do exactly that.
Smith said every ballot is tracked by a unique bar code. He said a voter knows when the ballot is mailed to them and when they return it they can track its arrival to the county clerk. A signature verification process is used to compare the voter’s signature to that of their original voter’s registration signature.
Having enough poll workers is often a challenge in some West Virginia counties. Smith said voting by mail eliminates that need.
“It expands access. It’s great on election integrity and security and it ends up costing much less than actually staffing all of the polling stations,” he said.
And Smith said residents in his state can relax on election day.
“When Oregonians see lines across the nation and folks standing out in all manner of weather it’s just crazy to us. We love the way we vote,” he said.
It remains to be seen if the convenience of mail-in balloting will be part of West Virginia’s voting future. Oregon’s Smith said it may come in steps in some states.
“Often states are making ‘no-excuse” to request a ballot but I think that you’ll see more states over time to shift to a vote-by-mail process,” Smith said.
Baker said at the very least it’s made Lincoln County residents and many West Virginians more comfortable with the absentee process.
“I look for absentees to be probably up more in future elections than they have bee prior to this,” he said.