Officials in the West Virginia Secretary of State’s Office and the state’s 55 county clerks’ offices say they are doing everything they can to keep the 2020 election process as safe and fair as possible.
More than anything right now, that process includes an attempt to facilitate as many voters as possible to use the absentee voting process to limit face-to-face contact while still utilizing the existing voting system and expanding resources to support it during the state of emergency brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, said Donald Kersey, general counsel for Secretary of State Mac Warner.
“The morale around the state right now is, there’s concern, but I can tell you from the election officials’ standpoint, the counties have really rallied around democracy, making sure that this election goes off safely and securely,” Kersey said Wednesday. “They’re ramping up their practices in the office to keep people 6 feet away, wash hands regularly, propping doors open instead of requiring people to turn knobs. They’re ordering additional absentee ballots right now even without any guarantee that they’re going to be reimbursed.”
After Kersey talked with the Gazette-Mail, Secretary Warner on Thursday announced county clerks would mail absentee ballot applications to every registered voter in the state.
On March 18, Warner announced all registered voters would qualify for an absentee ballot by checking the box next to “Illness, injury or other medical reason which keeps me confined” on the application for an absentee ballot.
As of today, voters still will be able cast their ballots at the relevant locations during the early voting period from April 19 to May 9, and they still will be able to vote at their polling places on May 12.
Under the state of emergency declared by Gov. Jim Justice on March 16, Warner has rule-making authority to change certain aspects of the election process. Warner previously told the Gazette-Mail he wasn’t inclined to delay West Virginia’s primary election given the unclear timeline of when the novel coronavirus pandemic will be over.
Even though voters still can cast their ballots in-person, the Secretary of State’s Office wants to encourage as much absentee voting as possible, given the public health and safety concerns of the pandemic, Kersey said.
Kersey answered questions from the Gazette-Mail about the absentee voting process, including deadlines to return applications, cast ballots and how this process is likely to affect how long it will take to tabulate the outcome of the 2020 primary election.
How can I tell if I’m registered to vote?
When approaching the absentee process, Kersey said the most important step is to determine if you are registered to vote.
During his announcement Thursday, Warner said registered West Virginia voters can expect to receive their absentee ballot applications the week of April 6, but if your voter registration has been canceled, you won’t automatically get an application.
West Virginians have two quick ways to find out if they’re registered.
The first is to call their local county clerk’s office.
The second is to visit the Secretary of State’s GoVoteWV website to check your registration status. You’ll have to enter your name and birthday on the website, but it will tell you whether your registration status is active, inactive or canceled.
“If you are active or inactive, you have all the rights to vote a regular ballot,” Kersey said. “If you’re canceled, you’ll have to re-register. If you want to know why you are canceled, you can call your county clerk because the clerks are the ones who make those decisions, and the clerk can give you the specific reason because it’s still in your official voter records in their office.”
The deadline to register to vote before the May 2020 Primary Election is April 21.
When is my absentee ballot application due?
The deadline to turn in the application for an absentee ballot is May 6, which is six days before the election, Kersey said.
“If you’re just ready to turn it on May 6, you may have to go in-person and drop it off because the postmark doesn’t matter for this one,” Kersey said. “It’s got to be in the clerk’s hands in the clerk’s office on May 6.”
West Virginians can mail their applications to their county clerks, or they can fax or email them, if they have the capability.
As previously mentioned, voters have the option to return their ballots in-person to their county clerks, but Kersey said voting officials want to deter as much face-to-face interaction as possible, given the public health concerns about COVID-19.
What about my actual ballot? What’s it like voting absentee, and when is my ballot due?
The actual absentee ballot must be mailed back to county clerks. They have to be postmarked by May 12, the day of the primary election, but they do not have to be in hand at the clerk’s office the day of the election, Kersey said.
Voters can expect to receive their absentee ballot within a few days of mailing their ballot applications, Kersey said.
The absentee ballots will include three envelopes, with one being the envelope that contains the ballot contents.
“Then there’s going to be an intermediate size envelope where you put your name, your address, your date of birth, and you sign an affidavit saying you live where you live and you are who you are,” Kersey said. “You put your ballot in a third envelope, which is called a secrecy envelope.”
After you’ve completed your ballot and put it in the proper envelope, the next step is to mail it back to the county clerk’s office. Postage at every step of the voting process is paid for by the county clerk.
How do I know my personal information and ballot are safe and that my vote will be counted?
“That’s a question most people are going to have, especially if they’re not used to the absentee process,” Kersey said.
One of the most important aspects of this process, Kersey noted, is that the absentee ballot process is one that all county clerks and the United States Postal Service are familiar with, but the situation in the state of emergency is an expansion of that process.
The U.S. Postal Service already prioritizes election mail, Kersey said.
Postal workers already know how to recognize election-related mail through training. The absentee ballot envelopes in particular are a darker manila color with a standard logo signifying it’s election-related mail, Kersey said.
“Any mail with that election mail logo on it gets prioritized,” Kersey said. “It’s handled carefully. All the postal workers know it’s official election mail, and it gets treated like any other official mail, like your tax returns or your Census material, back when you used to do it only through the mail.”
Official mail is sorted out from other, more standard mail, and given priority processing to ensure it gets where it needs to go in a timely fashion, Kersey said.
Once the ballot is at the clerk’s office, deputy clerks and election workers will process each ballot.
“The secrecy envelope [that contains your ballot] gets removed from the other envelope that has your information on it once you’re confirmed by the clerk’s office to be eligible to vote,” Kersey said. “Once they do that, they remove the ballot in the secrecy envelope and put it in a stack with other envelopes. That way your ballot — you’re not forfeiting your right to a secret ballot. It gets mixed in with all the other ballots before they’re opened up.”
West Virginians with internet access can check the status of their ballot at the Go Vote WV website, which will let voters know if their county clerk has received their ballot and whether it was counted. That service doesn’t track ballots in the mail, Kersey said.
How long will it take to get election results once voting is over?
This is another point where Warner and Kersey have told West Virginians not to expect what’s become the standard at this point in the election process, with fairly accepted outcomes in most races available the night of the election.
During the 2016 election, Kersey said two percent of the ballots cast in West Virginia were absentee.
During the 2016 primary, that means a little fewer than 10,000 ballots were absentee, and a little more than 14,600 ballots were absentee during the general election, according to data from the Secretary of State’s website.
Election officials expect the 2020 absentee ballots to exceed those numbers, but he said they couldn’t estimate the margin of increase. However, they expect that the official results of the election could take up to two weeks to tabulate and certify, Kersey said.
State law provides that each county commission canvass votes five days after a given election, but the law also allows commissions to delay their canvasses if they determine their county clerks need time to count the votes.
“If the county can’t hold it publicly or safely, they could take those considerations into mind and delay the canvass until it’s necessary, so they have time to process the ballots and have the public canvass as safely as possible,” Kersey said.
Vote canvassing events are public meetings and should be publicly accessible. Kersey said some county commissions have, in the past, livestreamed their canvassing meetings, but the time and means by which canvassing happens will have to be determined on a county-by-county basis, depending on the resources and will of county officials.
Those determinations can come down to what resources each county has, Kersey said.
“Smaller counties have less resources and less staff, and larger counties have bigger resources and more staff,” he said. “So being patient with your county when it comes to election night results as well as certifying the election is going to be something we’re all going to have to do, because the clerks are just not going to have as much as they need to process more paper ballots.”
Kersey said if West Virginia voters can have patience, the state can have a safe and fair election.
“We want voters to be patient with the clerks during this time of emergency,” he said. “Just know that we’re not going for speed here. We’re going for accuracy, and we want to make sure nobody’s disenfranchised because of the situation.”