Hoping to avoid “turmoil at the polls,” West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner is making absentee voting more accessible amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

With the state’s primary election a little less than eight weeks away, Warner and Attorney General Patrick Morrisey said there was enough time for West Virginia election officials to be proactive in ensuring a safe and fair election.

Warner encouraged people to vote absentee and engage in early voting with the goal of preventing very large crowds from congregating at polling places during the primary election May 12.

“I want this election to look and feel as much as possible like previous elections,” Warner said during a news conference at the Capitol Wednesday afternoon. “Taking into consideration the safety concerns, I want to stress that the fundamental principle of our democracy is voting, that’s voters at a ballot box and getting an opportunity to vote.”

The absentee voting process will remain largely the same, Warner said.

The exception will be that West Virginians will be able to claim a medical exemption that will allow them to vote absentee, Warner said. Voters do not have to be diagnosed with COVID-19, often called the coronavirus, to vote absentee. Just being concerned about contracting the virus will qualify for a medical exemption.

“Whether you have a concern, or actually have it, or you have been quarantined, you may cast your ballot using the absentee process,” Warner said.

Warner reiterated Monday that he did not want to postpone the primary election, saying officials don’t have a clear idea as to how the virus would spread between now and the election.

Warner sought a legal advisory opinion from Morrisey’s office as to what Warner’s rule-making authority was under the State of Emergency declaration Gov. Jim Justice issued Monday. On Tuesday, Justice announced the first confirmed case of the coronavirus had been diagnosed in the Eastern Panhandle.

Morrisey said during the news conference Warner was within his authority to make the absentee voting changes, and he didn’t believe there was a need for a special legislative session for legislators to change the rules for the election.

Warner asked that anyone who isn’t considered to be immunocompromised or otherwise susceptible to COVID-19 to volunteer to be one of the more an 9,000 poll workers required to run elections in the Mountain State.

“We know that many of the people that work the polls, the dedicated poll workers, they’ve been at it for decades, are the very population that’s most susceptible to the coronavirus situation,” Warner said. “This coronavirus situation is this generation’s national emergency. I ask you to respond.”

Warner also reiterated two other points he made in a Gazette-Mail interview last week: that voters will have to be patient with the vote-tallying process and to only rely on trusted sources when it comes to information about the election.

Those trusted sources, Warner said, were the governor’s website, the Secretary of State’s website and county clerks’ websites.

Warner said West Virginians should “not expect election night results in the immediate fashion you’ve become accustomed to” because so many ballots will be absentee and have to be counted by hand.

“Remember, my concern is the accuracy, not the speed,” Warner said.

More information about absentee voting, volunteering to become a poll worker and other election information is available on the Secretary of State’s website.

Reach Lacie Pierson at lacie.pierson@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-1723 or follow @laciepierson on Twitter.