Gov. Jim Justice has delayed the West Virginia primary election by about a month, the governor announced Wednesday morning, because of the coronavirus.
The primary now will take place June 9. It previously was scheduled for May 12.
Calling West Virginia’s county clerks the real soldiers of the election, Justice made the announcement during his daily news conference from the Capitol at about 11:30 a.m. Wednesday.
“All of you know that I was absolutely hopeful and supportive for trying to do our election on May 12,” Justice said. “I felt like we could do it, but as we continue to go, and we continue to get closer and closer, it’s ever so apparent that’s just absolutely the wrong thing to do.”
At least 14 other states and territories have delayed their primaries, according to The New York Times.
There was no indication from the governor or West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner that any other previously announced election processes would change for the 1.2 million registered voters in the state. However, the postponement of the election means other dates, such as the early voting period and deadline to register to vote, also will be delayed while county clerks work to keep their staff, volunteer poll workers and voters safe.
That means West Virginians still can expect to receive an application to vote absentee by mail and vote from their homes by mail instead of physically going to county clerks’ offices and other polling places amid the COVID-19 pandemic. They also still will have access to early voting at their respective county clerks’ offices and have the opportunity to vote at their local polling places during the new primary election day.
Dr. Clay Marsh, vice president and executive dean of West Virginia University Health Sciences and the state’s czar of the COVID-19 pandemic, said available data indicated cases of the virus in West Virginia would surge around May 2, 10 days before the original date of the primary election.
Justice emphasized during his announcement that West Virginia has a large population of senior citizens and that he wants to be sure they feel safe and comfortable to vote in-person, if they are not inclined or otherwise comfortable voting absentee through the mail.
“I asked my medical experts just this question, just this simple, and that was: ‘Based on where we are today with this COVID-19 virus by May the 12th, can the people of West Virginia safely vote in a primary election at their polling place?’ because I think that’s really important,” Justice said. “And the answer was unequivocally, ‘No.’ ”
State political party leaders support the change, with Democratic Party Chairwoman Belinda Biafore and Republican Party Chairwoman Melody Potter each saying they want to be sure the election is fair and that as many voters as possible have access to the means to cast their votes.
Secretary of State Mac Warner said postponing the election is the right call, and he praised the work of the state’s 55 county clerks.
“The real shout-out goes to [the county clerks],” Warner said. “They have raised the questions appropriately about the election and how we’re going to execute this, but everybody’s in this together to make sure this election is run safely with the utmost concern toward the health data that now the doctors have reported to us.”
When asked, Warner was hesitant to consider further delaying the election beyond June.
“I think we need to get this election over with in June,” Warner said.
Warner previously had indicated that he did not have the authority to change the election date, even under the state of emergency, but it was his impression that either the governor or the Legislature could do so in a special session.
On Wednesday, Attorney General Patrick Morrisey said the governor was within his constitutional and legal authority to delay the election.
“The governor does have the emergency powers to allow him to move the election date because he’s trying to protect the public health,” Morrisey said. “I think it’s important for everyone out there to know there are real significant constitutional issues at stake, because one of the most cherished liberties that we have in our country is the right to vote.”
Warner said Wednesday he has been hosting conference calls with the state’s county clerks to hear what sorts of challenges they’re facing and has routinely praised their work.
The Gazette-Mail reached out to a few county clerks earlier this week before the governor announced that the primary would be postponed.
Monroe Circuit Clerk Donnie Evans has served in his elected role since 1992. He said he supported a delay in the election, although his first preference would have been a mail-only absentee process.
West Virginia election officials considered a mail-only process for this election cycle, Donald “Deak” Kersey, general counsel for the Secretary of State’s Office, said last week.
Washington is a state that has a mail-only voting process, and Kersey said conversations with staff in Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman’s office deterred West Virginia officials from pursuing the method in an emergency situation. Kersey said it took Washington officials five years to implement the process, and time wasn’t a luxury West Virginia had.
In Monroe County, Evans said, he is confident his office is equipped for the election, no matter when it happens.
“I’ve been administering elections for almost 30 years, and you simply have to make it happen under whatever conditions are put before you,” Evans said. “However, we’ve never been faced with a public health pandemic during an election.”
Evans said his biggest concern is the safety of his poll workers and whether he can get enough people to volunteer to work the polls. He said the average age of a poll worker in Monroe County is 68 years.
“This is the most susceptible age group to contract the coronavirus,” Evans said. “I don’t feel comfortable at all asking these folks to leave their homes to work the polls. As safe as we can try and make it, they are going to come in contact with others, and this just increases their chance of getting the virus.”
In Jackson County, County Clerk Cheryl Bright said she is working skeleton crews in her office with the goal of keeping employees separated, so if one person is exposed to the virus, the second team can keep the office running.
She said she has the “best team of workers in the state.”
“The voters need to have confidence that we are working to make this election, like all elections, fair, secure,” Bright said. “My office is doing everything we can to remain healthy so we can get the job done. This is a critical time for the county clerks around the state. We need our staff to remain safe and healthy. We all have concerns but, at the end of the day, we are all committed to getting the job done.
“The 2020 primary will certainly be memorable in many ways.”