West Virginia Democratic legislators are asking Gov. Jim Justice and Secretary of State Mac Warner to go one step further in making voting accessible amid the worldwide coronavirus pandemic during the 2020 election cycle.
A group of legislators on Wednesday sent out a news release asking Gov. Jim Justice to declare the state’s June 9 Primary Election a vote-by-mail-only election, as opposed to the current situation that allows all eligible West Virginia voters the option to vote absentee through the mail.
In response to the call-out from the legislators, Secretary of State Mac Warner said he was not an advocate for West Virginia becoming a vote-by-mail-only state, and he wouldn’t implement such a system unless the state Legislature passed a law requiring him to do so.
The legislators’ news release didn’t have exact details about how mail-only voting would work other than making it so voters wouldn’t have to physically go to a polling place to cast their vote.
“We must take every commonsense precaution to ensure the certainty and safety of our upcoming primary election,” Sen. Doug Facemire, D-Braxton, said in the release. “We must follow the instructions of our public health professionals and use social distancing to keep the virus from spreading or rebounding.”
Warner said the limited voting by mail system in West Virginia provided Mountain State voters with enough safe options and flexibility to cast their ballots.
“My office will not do anything to reduce voter confidence in our election process,” Warner said. “To do so would reduce voter participation. West Virginia provides every voter with options on how they want to vote. You can vote in-person. You can vote by mail with an absentee ballot. And if you’re an overseas, military or registered voter with certain physical disabilities, you now have the option to vote electronically.”
On March 18, Warner announced that all of West Virginia’s 1.2 million registered voters would automatically receive the application for an absentee ballot and would be eligible to vote absentee by mail. Under the State of Emergency order issues by Gov. Justice on March 16, Warner relaxed the medical exemption rule to allow more people to vote absentee and delayed the primary election by about a month.
Outside of the current State of Emergency, the existing process to vote by mail in West Virginia requires voters to request an absentee ballot from their local county clerk’s office.
West Virginia voters still can vote in-person at their local county clerk’s offices during the early voting period from May 27 to June 6 and at their regular polling places during the Primary Election June 9.
A vote-by-mail bill sponsored by Delegate Evan Hansen, D-Monongalia, during the 2020 Legislative Session would have made it so registered voters automatically would receive ballots in the mail without filling out an application automatic for all registered voters, and they would have the option of returning their ballots through the mail or using deposit boxes at secure locations, including county and municipal clerks’ offices.
Hansen was one of the legislators to sign onto Wednesday’s letter. He and Facemire were joined by Senators Mike Romano, D-Harrison, and William Ihlenfeld, D-Ohio, and Delegates Barbara Fleischauer, D-Monongalia, and Andrew Robinson, D-Kanawha.
Former Secretary of State Natalie Tennant released a statement on April 15 calling for election officials and legislators to consider vote-by-mail only measures for the general election, saying previous vote-by-mail measures have been successful in Morgantown and Harrisville in Ritchie County.
“It is tempting to wait and see how the expanded use of absentee voting during the primary election works before taking the next step, but that would put West Virginia behind the eight ball and deprive us several months of planning,” Tennant said.
Tennant, a Democrat, is running for Secretary of State this year.
Tennant and Hansen both noted that implementing a vote-by-mail process could require the Legislature to convene for special session to establish laws to make it possible.