A bill that changes how candidates for office across the state announce their intention to run drew close to an hour of discussion on the Senate floor Tuesday.
Senate Bill 541 is simply titled “Providing for Election Reform.” It creates a requirement that, as part of their certificate of announcement, a candidate swears they are legally qualified to seek and hold the office sought.
Senate Judiciary Chair Sen. Charles Trump, R-Morgan, used filing to run for Senate as an example. He noted the bill would require the Secretary of State to include the specific qualifications for each elected position on the relevant certificate of announcement form.
“When you file your certificate of announcement to run for office for the Senate of West Virginia, you’re going to have to swear under oath that you’re a minimum age of 25. That’s what our Constitution requires,” Trump said.
“That you’ve been a resident of the state for five years, that’s what our Constitution requires,” he continued. “That you’ve been a resident of the district in which you’re running for a year. What we’re asking the Secretary of State to do is, for each certificate of announcement, for each office, delineate what those statutory or constitutional criteria are. The bill requires that you certify that when you make your announcement.”
The new requirement stems from the case of a candidate in the 2022 Republican primary for the state’s 8th Senate District who was placed on the ballot but was ruled by a court to not meet the minimum residency requirement for the position.
A judge ordered that votes for the candidate not be counted, sparking claims of judicial interference in the election process.
Sen. Eric Tarr, R-Putnam, asked about the bill’s new limitation on suits regarding election eligibility. The bill would require suits be resolved before absentee ballots are distributed or be dismissed without prejudice.
“Around the polling places around the state, a court required signs to go up and say that your vote for a candidate who is on the existing ballot cannot be counted,” Tarr said. “As they interfered in that election, if we vote yes, would it prohibit the court from interfering in that way once a candidate is on the ballot?”
Trump said that in the case of the 2022 election, the court decision was rendered after the absentee ballots were distributed, something that the bill seeks to amend.
“If this bill were operative now, with the same time frames that occurred in that case, I think the answer would be the court would have to dismiss the case and wait until after the primary election had occurred,” Trump said.
Sen. Mike Woelfel, D-Cabell, also stood to clarify that if the bill passed, a candidate who is found to not meet requirements could face criminal prosecution.
“I believe it will cut down on situations where people are playing fast and loose with their residency,” he said. “It was a very vague area of the law, very vague. Now, you’re going to swear on a document executed and tendered to the Secretary of State and made a public record, you’re going to swear an oath that you have lived in that district for one year. And if you have not, you’re subject to a criminal prosecution.”
The bill passed on a vote of 28 to 5, with one Senator absent and now goes to the House of Delegates for its consideration.