West Virginia’s Secretary of State holds a variety of responsibilities. The person on the job is tasked with overseeing elections, maintaining business registrations and licensing, and also keeping records on the executive branch, among other duties.
In this year’s general election, two candidates with experience in the post are squaring off against one another: Republican Mac Warner and Democrat Natalie Tennant. The two differ significantly in their vision for the office, and the race between them has gotten personal.
This election cycle, absentee mail-in voting has become one of the most partisan political battles, with President Donald Trump and other Republicans alleging — without significant evidence — that voting by mail would lead to rampant fraud.
Warner and Tennant — who both participated in a debate moderated by West Virginia Public Broadcasting — have offered starkly different perspectives on voting by mail.
For the state’s June 9 primary, Warner’s office saw to it that all of the state’s 1.2 million registered voters were mailed an application for an absentee ballot.
But that system changed for the general election, with Warner deciding to offer applications through an online portal or directly through the county clerks. He says local election officials consulted him on the matter.
“We went back and we talked to the clerks afterwards — and the clerks were the ones who told me they did not want to send out the applications as they did in the primary,” Warner said. “The reason those applications were sent out was because we were under an emergency situation that the governor has put us under, where he told us to stay at home.”
Tennant argues the change in the absentee voting process has created a barrier for some voters who now likely expect an application to be mailed to them automatically.
“Mac can’t say on one hand, we had a successful primary election. We know we were all in agreement that folks use the absentee application when we had a quarter of a million West Virginians use it,” Tennant said. “But then what he did was pull the rug out from underneath them. “
Tennant said she has heard from many voters that they are anticipating getting absentee ballot applications.
“That is changing the rules mid-stream, and he’s making it more difficult by throwing a barrier up and saying that voters need to go online and ask for a ballot,” she said.
Absentee voting has been a point of division for the two candidates — even beyond the scope of the coronavirus pandemic. Tennant said she supports a system that would allow more opportunities for voters to submit ballots — including wider access to voting by mail and drop boxes for completed ballots.
“The way that I would make it even more secure is to allow the counties to have drop boxes. There have been several counties to ask the Secretary of State and here he goes again, putting another barrier around every corner. We need drop boxes because it would lighten the load for clerks. It would give confidence to the voters and it would lighten the load for the postal service.”
Warner argues that potential for fraud remains in the vote-by-mail system.
Following the June primary, Warner’s office — along with help of federal prosecutors — investigated one instance in which absentee ballot applications were tampered with. A Pendleton County mail carrier ultimately pleaded guilty to altering eight applications to favor Republicans.
Warner said his office’s election fraud unit did well in spotting that case. But he also said the stakes are too high to allow universal voting by mail — where ballots are automatically sent to every registered voter — in West Virginia.
“I am very confident in the U.S. Postal Service. However, I use the example: if you’ve won the Mega Millions lottery, would you take that ticket and stick it in the mail? Or would you walk it down in person?” Warner asked. “We’ve all experienced some problem with the postal service. Although, 96 percent of the time they do deliver things on time, as scheduled. But when it comes to elections, we’re in a situation where somebody waits until the last minute to stick that ballot in the mail — yes, they may run into some difficulties with it either being postmarked, rerouted or delivered on time.”
While Warner and Tennant part ways on a variety of issues — including the use of mobile voting technology or how the state’s business licensing division should be run — the two candidates both look back to the moment when Tennant handed the office over to Warner following the 2016 election.
Tennant points out wrongful termination lawsuits brought by former employees Warner fired, which wound up costing the state more than $3.2 million. For Tennant, those firings were personal — not only for her former employees, but for her. She noted circumstances surrounding one worker’s termination.
“Layna was just two weeks shy of 20 years of service to West Virginia. Without cause, without thought, without even being interviewed by Mac Warner, she was gone and jobless — as everything that she had accomplished meant nothing,” Tennant said. “Mac illegally fired her that day and 15 other people, and West Virginia suffered a great blow when those careers were abruptly ended.”
Warner argues those employees were at will and were “bogging down operations” when he took over. He blames those employees for poor work, a situation in which he maintains Tennant was responsible.
“There was nothing — absolutely nothing — illegal about that whatsoever. And in fact, I gave them two weeks’ notice so that they could find other employment if they so chose,” Warner said. “So let’s be straight about this. That was a housecleaning project that needed to be done. Any money that was paid by the state was the result of the failures of my predecessor, not me.”
Voters in West Virginia will now have to decide whether to stick with Warner or reseat Tennant as Secretary of State.
Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 3.