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In West Virginia, it’s a crime to participate in elections while serving a sentence for a felony conviction, including any period of probation or parole.
Following a jury trial in July 2023, Fayette County resident Darrell Sharp II was found guilty of unlawful voter registration while on parole for a felony conviction. Fayette County Circuit Court Judge Paul M. Blake, Jr., handed down the maximum sentence of one year in jail and a $1,000 fine.
All states except for Vermont and Maine (and Washington, D.C.) have some form of restriction on voting rights for people with criminal convictions. West Virginia is among thirteen states that restore voting rights after completion of a sentence, including parole. Twenty states restore voting rights after someone is released from prison. Eleven states have policies that vary depending on the crime committed. Only in Virginia are people permanently disenfranchised after conviction of a felony.
Secretary of State Mac Warner said Sharp’s is the first conviction under tougher election fraud laws recently passed by the legislature. Warner said the sentencing sends a significant message.
“This conviction is just one further indication that we are going to continue this push for election integrity and security,” Warner said
West Virginia University Political Science Chair John Kilwein said in Sharp’s case, the punishment doesn’t fit the crime.
“It just doesn’t seem like it should be a high priority,” Kilwein said. “It doesn’t seem like my tax dollars should be supporting that guy in prison for that act.”
Warner said the court considered Sharp’s prior felonies as heinous, and he had attempted election fraud once before.
“I think the sentence was very appropriate,” Warner said. “With the history behind it, he was very intentionally making these efforts to vote and participate when he was not allowed to do so and had been put on notice of that.”
Sharp’s conviction for election law violations is West Virginia’s fourth such in 2023 and the third since July. Kilwein said in a state with 1.8 million people, four cases of voter fraud in the year, so far, is not a glaring problem.
“This smacks of politics that a candidate argues there is voter fraud,” Kilwein said. “Voter fraud is really a non-issue in this country. It is a glaring problem to the MAGA types, to the Fox News types, where they’re constantly told Democrats are trying to steal elections.”
Warner said vote fraud vigilance, no matter the scope, is needed. He said documentation shows that a single illegal vote can possibly sway an outcome.
“In the 2022 election cycle, we had 12 races that were decided by five votes or less,” Warner said. “Sometimes you hear, ‘well, it’s not massive voter fraud,’ or ‘it didn’t change the outcome of the election.’ We’ve had a number of cases here in West Virginia where just one or two votes does change the outcome of an election. And that’s why we take every voting fraud case very seriously.”
As to West Virginia’s restriction on voting rights for people with criminal convictions, Warner said he is pleased with the way things are, and if the legislature wants to change it, it can.
“But I don’t anticipate that with the current legislature because I think they are just as concerned with election integrity as I am,” Warner said.