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Voter momentum could make West Virginia election historic

West Virginia voters continued to participate in this frenzied election at a historic pace.

With Election Day now here, the continued surge of voters reflected the hotly-contested presidential race, emotional investment and defiance of pandemic conditions.

“Are we in for higher turnout? I think there are more and more signs we’re in for a higher turnout election,” said Erik Herron, the Eberly Family Distinguished Professor of Political Science at West Virginia University.

“It does seem like it’s not just about voters adjusting to the pandemic.”

Brisk pace of early voting

In the 2016 General Election, 732,362 West Virginians cast ballots — 57 percent turnout.

In 2012, there were 685,099 voters — 55 percent turnout.

In 2008, it was 702,109 — 57.9 percent turnout.

By Monday morning, the Secretary of State’s Office was already reporting 389,248 votes cast in this election, reflecting 30.7 percent turnout.

“That is remarkable,” said Marybeth Beller, a political science professor at Marshall University. “It looks like West Virginia is on target to meet or exceed our normal 50 percent turnout.”

Of the pre-Election Day total, 253,243 ballots were cast during the early voting period that concluded Saturday.

Another 136,005 absentee ballots had been returned, representing 88.9 percent of the absentee ballots that were requested.

So more absentee ballots could still be turned in today, but in-person turnout on Election Day could determine whether this vote is truly historic.

“I’m intensely curious to see where we end up in terms of overall turnout,” Herron said.

Polling hours are from 6:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. today. Weather conditions are expected to be cool and sunny.

“It looks like it’s going to be a chilly but nice day. I encourage everyone to come out and vote,” Darrell Shull, Berkeley County’s chief deputy clerk of elections and voter registration, said Monday on MetroNews’ “Talkline.”

Election Day choices

The top of the ballot includes a heated race between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden.

Although polling has shown Biden in the lead nationally, West Virginia polling has shown a likely victory for Trump here, where the president remains quite popular. West Virginia has five electoral votes.

One question, though, is whether Trump maintains near the same level of popularity in West Virginia as 2016 when he beat Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton 67.9 percent to 26.2 percent.

If the margin has softened, that could affect some West Virginia legislative and local races.

“He’s still going to win the state of West Virginia, but there could be implications for close down-ballot races for Republicans,” Herron said.

Still, Herron added, “I don’t anticipate that we’ll be reporting on major upsets at the more prominent races in West Virginia — governor, senator and so on.”

MORE: Candidates, campaigns push final messages ahead of Election Day

West Virginia ballots include races for U.S. Senate and congress, where the incumbents are all Republicans.

Senator Shelley Moore Capito is seeking her second term against Democrat Paula Jean Swearengin. Representatives David McKinley, Alex Mooney and Carol Miller face Democratic challengers Natalie Cline, Cathy Kunkel and Hilary Turner.

At state government’s executive branch level, Gov. Jim Justice — a Republican who was first elected as a Democrat — faces Democratic challenger Ben Salango, a Kanawha County commissioner.

Other candidates for governor include Libertarian Erika Kolenich, Daniel Lutz of the Mountain Party and independent S. Marshall Wilson, who is running a write-in campaign.

Justice and Salango have had very different electoral season styles.

Salango has run a campaign traditional in some senses with bus tours across the state but also virtual meet-ups on social media. During a get-out the vote rally Monday afternoon, he urged supporters to hold Justice accountable.

“Tomorrow is Jim Justice’s performance review. The question is, who do you want to hire?”

In a state where Democrats still have a slight voter registration margin, Salango exhorted people to get out and vote.

“Are we gonna get our friends, our families, our neighbors out to vote?” Salango said.

Justice has proudly repeated that he hasn’t even seen his campaign headquarters. Although he has run television ads that feature him speaking directly into the camera, he hasn’t pressed the flesh much at all.

Instead, Justice has used the incumbency to communicate with West Virginia citizens with regular coronavirus updates and briefings about other aspects of state government such as grant allocations. On Friday, he had four of those briefings, using some of his time to tout his administration’s activities.

During Monday’s coronavirus briefing, Justice exhorted citizens to vote.

“You have the ability to go vote,” Justice said. “Exercise that ability.”

Additional executive offices on the ballot include incumbent Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, a Republican, against Democratic challenger Sam Petsonk; incumbent Secretary of State Mac Warner, another Republican, against Democratic challenger Natalie Tennant, who previously held that office; incumbent Auditor J.B. McCuskey, also a Republican, against Democrat Mary Ann Claytor; and incumbent Agriculture Secretary Kent Leonhardt against Democrat Bob Beach, a state Senator.

The only Democrat among the state’s Board of Public Works is Treasurer John Perdue, who first took that office in 1997. He is running against Republican Riley Moore, a former state Delegate who is grandson of former state Gov. Arch Moore and nephew of Capito.

Seventeen of the 34 seats in the state Senate are up.

Going into the election, Republicans have 20 of those Senate seats and Democrats have 14. So Democrats hope to cut into that margin, while Republicans hope to maintain or expand it. Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, lost during the primary election.

“We’ve got some seats that are wide open. That makes it interesting in and of itself. We also have some incumbents who are running who are in trouble in different ways,” Beller said.

The House of Delegates is already going through significant turnover, with some delegates opting against returning. The current membership is 58 Republicans, 41 Democrats and 1 independent.

There are also local government races all over the state.

“It could come down to people actually voting because they’re considering a particular candidate rather than considering the party,” Beller said.

Time to count the vote

County clerks have reported smooth voting so far and hoped for more of the same on Election Day.

Putnam County had processed 11,328 early voters through two early voting sites. And the county had received 5,661 absentee ballots by Monday morning.

So the county had tallied close to 17,000 ballots even before Election Day.

Putnam County Clerk Brian Wood estimated about 27,000 would vote in the county before it’s all over. That would represent 68 to 70 percent voter turnout, higher than the usual West Virginia average.

“We want everybody to be safe, we want everybody to have a good, pleasurable experience there at the polls. And we look forward to having a good election,” Wood said Monday on MetroNews’ “Talkline.”

“It really should be decent at the polls. There might be lines, but they shouldn’t be too long and they should move quickly.”

HOPPY KERCHEVAL: The Historic, and Necessary, Peaceful Transfer of Power

The results that are available tonight will be unofficial.

Nov. 9 marks the canvass that will make results certified. The Secretary of State’s Office notes that absentee ballots postmarked by Election Day will be accepted if they are received by the start of canvass.

Canvassing sometimes decides close races in West Virginia.

That was the case with the Democratic primary for Attorney General and the Democratic primary for the 2nd Congressional District this past spring. The outcomes of two Kanawha County races for legislative seats were settled in 2018 canvassing.

President Trump has repeatedly said all votes should be counted on Election Day, saying that counting these votes, up to three days after the election, “will allow rampant and unchecked cheating.”

People should remain patient, Herron said, even after Election Day.

“We don’t know who is going to win until all the votes are counted,” Herron said. “So the process will take some time and there has been a lot of discussion and a lot of rhetoric about when we should know the results.

“We never have official results on Election Night. Never. Official results come later, there’s an official process, it varies from state to state, and we’re all going to have to be patient.”

Beller had similar advice. She said the official process of canvassing could well settle some races.

“We have a whole lot of excitement and hype, really that is coming from President Trump to demand that we have answers tonight. But that is not historically the case,” she said, pointing to the Bush vs. Gore presidential race in 2000 that wound up being settled by the U.S. Supreme Court.

“The sun did come up the next day, life carried on, and we found out again through an institutional process and it kept our democracy strong. All of us, sure, should need to have fun and enjoy to tonight but to understand we’ll probably go to bed not having all the answers.”

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