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Republican lawmakers in West Virginia want to increase the penalties for illegal voting in elections.
House Bill 4311 would make it a felony to “knowingly and willfully” vote twice in an election or to reject or alter ballots in an effort to deceive voters. The crime is currently a misdemeanor.
The bill passed the House of Delegates with no opposition on Thursday. Six delegates were absent.
There has been no evidence of widespread voter fraud in West Virginia or anywhere else in the U.S., despite false claims by former President Donald Trump that the last federal election was “stolen.” Still, there has been an increased effort by mostly GOP elected officials since the last U.S. election to tighten voting laws.
During discussion of the bill on the House floor, Democratic Del. Mike Pushkin asked if there had been any instances of people being charged for illegal voting.
“We’ve heard testimony of that fact,” said Republican Del. Tom Fast, who was answering questions about the bill. Fast said he heard testimony about cases of illegal voting in the House Judiciary Committee.
Pushkin, who also serves on the House Judiciary Committee, said he had heard no testimony detailing instances of voter fraud. He said it doesn’t exist, and given that, Pushkin said he’s not sure how much effect the bill will have.
“We’re making a stricter penalty on something we haven’t really had any instances of happening, but that’s fine,” he said.
After President Joe Biden was declared the winner of the 2020 election, West Virginia’s Secretary of State Mac Warner said he supported the state’s involvement in a lawsuit challenging electoral results in swing states won by Biden.
Warner, a Republican, made an appearance at a “March for Trump” rally in Charleston after the election, where he appeared to be holding up a “Stop the Steal” sign.
Pushkin said if the intent is to restore people’s faith in their elections, he will support it.
“But I would go as far as saying if we really want to restore faith in our elections, maybe the chief election officer of the state should probably refrain from standing on the steps of the Capitol with a ‘Stop the Steal sign,'” he said.
In an email to The Associated Press on Thursday, Warner said House Bill 4311 was legislation he requested to “continue our nationally recognized and bipartisan efforts to eliminate barriers to the ballot box for all West Virginia voters.”
“Confidence in West Virginia elections has never been higher because of our interest in transparent, safe and secure elections,” he said.
In response to Pushkin’s comments, he said: “Political attacks should be saved for the campaign trail.”
Warner said his office is prohibited by law from discussing any ongoing election fraud investigations.
Mike Queen, Warner’s deputy chief of staff, pointed to news releases on the Secretary of State’s website that include an unlawful voter registration case in Kanawha County and a former Morgantown resident who admitted to falsifying signatures in his bid to become a City Council candidate.
An Associated Press review of every potential case of voter fraud in the six battleground states disputed by Trump found fewer than 475 — a number that would have made no difference in the 2020 presidential election.
Prior to the November 2020 election, Warner defended the election process in the state, calling it “safe, secure and fair” after Trump said a West Virginia mail carrier was “selling ballots.”
Postal worker Thomas Cooper pleaded guilty in July 2020 to attempted election fraud and injury to the mail after changing five ballot requests from Democrat to Republican. He also altered three other ballot applications by circling the word “Republican” in a different color ink than what was used on the forms, according to Warner’s office.
The attempted fraud was a “unique circumstance where a postal carrier altered absentee ballot applications, not ballots,” Warner said in a statement at the time.
Warner said: “Voters should be confident that this election will be safe, secure, and fair.”
Elections-related court cases in West Virginia over the decades have been dominated by elected officials, not citizens.
In the 1980s, a state-federal task force secured more than two dozen election-related convictions in Mingo County, including a former sheriff, a county commissioner, a school board president and a Democratic Party chairman.
In neighboring Logan County in the 1990s, two state legislators, the county assessor and a circuit judge, among others, went to jail on corruption charges that included vote-buying. And in 2004, Logan County’s sheriff and a city police chief resigned and pleaded guilty to exchanging money for votes.
In 2012, a former sheriff and county clerk in Lincoln County pleaded guilty to charges that they attempted to flood the county’s 2010 Democratic primary with fraudulent absentee ballots.
Associated Press reporter John Raby contributed to this report.