West Virginia elections officials and advocates for voting rights are closely following 40 pages of legislation that would update several voting procedures, including those for early voting, registration and the legal process for disputed results.
With less than a week left of the regular session, the House of Delegates must decide whether Senate Bill 565, which passed the Senate 29 to 5 in March, could help West Virginia voters or harm them.
The secretary of state’s office, which helped draft the legislation, says the bill will have “no significant, major changes” to voters according to general counsel Donald Kersey. He said that the bill is an effort to increase the public’s confidence in elections.
“The point of the bill is to make it even better in West Virginia,” said Kersey. “Not only for voters to be able to participate, but also for the administrators, who have to make sure that an election is fair, and safe and secure, and accurate and reliable.”
Proposed Changes To Early, Absentee Voting
During a public hearing Monday in the House Judiciary Committee, where Senate bill 565 has been referred, most speakers focused on changes to early voting and absentee ballot deadlines.
The legislation would move the state’s early voting period up to six days before an election. Right now, the last Saturday of early voting happens two days before Election Day.
Dozens of speakers, many affiliated with voting rights and advocacy organizations, said Monday that they believe the last two days of early voting — currently the Friday and Saturday before Election Day — are most popular with working-class voters, those who lack reliable transportation and those who want as much time as possible to consider candidates.
“Eliminating them could have an effect on the voter outcome,” said George Rutherford, president of the Jefferson County chapter of the NAACP. “The legislature needs to find ways to encourage more people to vote instead of suppressing the vote.”
Senate Bill 565 does not shorten the state’s early voting period.
Data from the secretary of state’s office shows that since 2014, save for two general elections, the last Friday and Saturday were the most popular of the 10 days allotted for early voting, even if their turnout stood apart from other days by only a few percentage points.
“Sometimes things happen at the last minute and you’re not going to be in town on Election Day,” said Kathy Stoltz of the Wood County League of Women Voters, who spoke against Senate Bill 565.
The bill also would move up the deadline for absentee ballot applications, and it would shorten the time that county clerks have to wait before reaching out to voters who they suspect have moved and need to update their information.
Clerks and their representatives have spoken in favor of these changes because it would offer them more time to prepare for an election.
Patti Hamilton of the West Virginia Association of Counties said that these changes will come in handy should there be another statewide emergency, like a pandemic.
“I can assure you that 55 county clerks did not get together and decide that they were going to try to suppress anyone’s vote,” Hamilton said. “The shift in early voting just gives them a couple of extra days in case of emergency illness, Superstorm Sandy, all kinds of things can happen and get things messed up before Election Day.”
Kersey said these changes to deadlines in Senate Bill 565 also have been informed by input from the United States Postal Service. An attorney for the USPS wrote to the state on Tuesday, noting that the bill “alleviates much of the risk to voters” that their absentee ballots won’t reach their county clerks in time.
Under Senate Bill 565, county commissions and municipal bodies would no longer handle cases where someone is contesting the results of an election.
Instead, this process would begin with the circuit court. Kersey said this change follows a contentious race in the small, roughly 230-person town of Harpers Ferry.
As MetroNews reported in June 2020, the state Supreme Court of Appeals agreed to count four provisional ballots that the Town Council originally had voted against counting.
Those ballots made all the difference in a close race, resulting in two new members.
One of those new members, Nancy Singleton Case, ultimately won her election by one vote following the supreme court’s decision. Case spoke in favor of Senate Bill 565 during Monday’s public hearing.
“The current election law nearly prevented me from becoming elected at all,” Case said. “Our election became a political firestorm when the council … chose not to open four provisional ballots in order to hold on to their seats of power.”
Confidence In West Virginia Elections
Kersey said the circuit court change plays into an underlying theme of the bill to increase public confidence in West Virginia elections.
Meanwhile, some in the state have criticized the state’s Chief Election Officers, Mac Warner, for his support of a lawsuit questioning the results of the 2020 election.
Warner participated in a rally supporting the legal effort late last year — Kersey said Monday that Warner’s attendance was in his own personal capacity and didn’t represent his office.
Warner himself said Thursday that he supported the lawsuit because there were “improprieties” in other states where “the rules of the election were changed in the middle of the game” due to the pandemic.
The lawsuit in question, which West Virginia’s attorney general signed onto in December, was dismissed by the U.S. Supreme Court for lack of standing.
Senate Bill 565 also would expand absentee ballot eligibility to emergency responders who have to work away from their county during an election.
It would create a misdemeanor for anyone who interferes with someone at the polls, with the intention to delay or hinder their vote, and it would update the DMV’s process for automatically registering voters who are obtaining their driver’s licenses.
The legislation would require that anyone participating in a political robocall or “push polling” begin all of their political messages with a disclaimer, who including who paid for the content.
Emily Allen is a Report for America corps member.