Emily Allen Published

COVID-19 Could Lead To Highest Absentee Ballot 'Turnout' In W.Va. History

A sign on the door of the polling place at Morgantown High School on Nov. 6, 2018, in the South Park neighborhood of Morgantown, W.Va.

Days after the governor issued a stay home order on March 23, Secretary of State Mac Warner announced his office was opening absentee voting to all of the state’s roughly 1.2 million registered voters. 

Since then, nearly 18 percent of those registered so far, or 214,852 people, have requested an absentee ballot from their county clerks. 

That’s 206,873 more requests than county clerks received during the last presidential primary in 2016. Already, more than 86,000 absentee ballots have been cast statewide, compared to the 6,567 that were submitted four years ago.

Historically, the Warner’s office reports less than 3 percent of voters cast an absentee-by-mail ballot, a method usually reserved in West Virginia for those with a serious medical condition, or residents who are out of state due to work or military service. 

“We normally don’t have a lot of absentee ballot requests,” Wirt County Clerk Marolyn Baldridge said. “And so, you know, this year, it’s a whole different ball game.” 

County clerks who send out and accept these ballots, in small and big counties alike, are noticing the uptick. Some are working overtime to keep up.

In Wirt County, home to roughly 3,000 registered voters, there already has been 725 requests. In 2016 Baldridge said there were 21 total ballots cast for the primary election.

Cabell County Clerk Phyllis Smith estimates there is roughly 55,000 registered voters in her county. As of Wednesday, she said she had received 11,016 requests.

“And we have received back 4,121,” she added. Normally, she said her office will see 500 to 1,000 in a presidential primary. 

Roger Toney is the Boone County clerk. His staff of five have received more than 2,400 requests already, from among 15,000 registered voters.

“Before we would have between 50 and 100 absentee ballots, in a whole year for an election,” Toney said.

The Challenge of Absentee Ballots

Absentee ballots require a lot of work. The county clerk’s office must verify signatures. Staff have to make sure people are registered according to the party ballot they requested.

“The work has basically consumed everyone here,” Toney said.

While workers across the state are being encouraged to work from home, and thousands of others have lost their jobs, Toney said his staff have been at the courthouse most days. 

“We were operating on a rotational basis because you know, COVID-19,” Toney said. “Three or four weeks ago, I had to basically call everyone and tell them, ‘you’ve got to come back to work full time.’” 

The Boone County Clerk’s office has lost staffing positions over the years, which Toney says is due to years of declining coal severance taxes that the county uses to fund itself. 

For overtime and other voting costs related to running an election during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Secretary of State’s office has said it will use federal dollars for voting aid to reimburse the counties.

West Virginia received $3.8 million for voting from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, which included $400 million in emergency funds to the Help America Vote Act. 

West Virginians have until Tuesday, May 19, to register for the 2020 primary election. Early in-person voting runs from May 27 to June 6. The Secretary of State moved election day from May 12 to June 9. Absentee ballot applications are due June 3.

Emily Allen is a Report for America corps member.