Tuesday will be my 40th, and hopefully final, election night as a reporter, and as such it is encouraging to see record early voting turnout, both nationally and in West Virginia.
Here’s hoping this election marks the end of a long stretch of voter apathy.
When I started covering elections not so long ago, one could go to a “meet the candidates” event and see hundreds of voters filling the meeting venue. The last few times I bothered to cover a “meet the candidates” night, the candidates outnumbered the voters.
Part of that is Republican strategy. In order to win elections, Republicans need to suppress voter turnout — and this election, we’re seeing Republicans going to court across the country seeking actions to limit or suppress vote counts.
Republican political operatives discovered long ago one of the most effective ways to suppress turnout is by flooding the airwaves (and more recently, social media) with negative attacks, exaggerations and falsehoods in hopes of turning off blocs of voters.
Ultimately, one could argue voter apathy led to the election of a reality TV show host as president with a history of failed businesses, enormous personal debts and no prior governmental experience.
Regardless of one’s politics, the last four years have been an unrelenting drama of incapacity, histrionics and divisiveness.
Hopefully, the last four years have awakened many apathetic voters, occasional voters and non-voters to the reality that elections have consequences, and as a result, people are turning out in unprecedented numbers to make their voices heard.
Millions are recognizing that voting is a right and a civic duty, not an errand to be undertaken if time permits.
I was delighted to find myself at the back of a long line for early voting downtown, not only because of the turnout but because of the numbers of young people and people of color queued ahead of me.
(Kudos to Vera McCormick and the staff of the clerk’s office who kept things moving quickly even with long lines.)
For me, election nights initially were exhilarating. After the last stories were filed, we’d head out to the watering hole to celebrate a job well done (or at least done) and engage in instant analysis of what the night’s results would mean for Washington and Charleston.
Lately, after that last story is filed, I’ve dragged myself home at an hour well past my normal bedtime.
I’m sure I’ll be dragging again as Tuesday night crosses into Wednesday morning, but I’ll be comforted by the knowledge that our democracy likely has been preserved — at least for now.
That Gov. Jim Justice pulled another old-school political trick comes as no surprise. He used official letterhead to send personally signed letters to the 133,000 households eligible for a share of the $25 million of federal CARES Act funds for delinquent utility bills. The letter was an unnecessary duplication of letters sent to the same households by the utilities themselves.
The letters arrived in the midst of early voting and less than two weeks before the general election. They made it sound as if Justice was digging into his own pocket to pay the bills, stating at one point, “I pray these funds give you some peace of mind. I know West Virginians are some of the most resilient people on earth, and I know we will get through this pandemic if we stay together and stay West Virginia Strong.”
For a politician to use taxpayer resources for self-aggrandizement leading up to an election is not new. In fact, Justice’s BFF President Donald Trump did it in the spring, sending out 90 million letters on White House stationary taking credit for the $1,200 stimulus checks that recipients of the letter had received weeks earlier.
What was unique about the letter was that Justice, when asked about it at his Monday COVID-19 briefing, seemed to be unaware of its existence.
“We’re going to try to get money out and protect our people that are struggling with their utility bills, and I’m sorry, I just don’t know about the letter going out on my letterhead,” Justice said during the briefing — one of four times during the briefing he indicated he was unaware of the letter’s existence.
At another point in the briefing, one of Justice’s aides apparently advised him off-camera that no state postage was used to mail the letter, indicating that it was included with letters that major utility companies in the state sent to their delinquent customers notifying them of the program.
That brought to mind early episodes of the TV series M*A*S*H, where a running joke was how Cpl. “Radar” O’Reilly would always get bumbling camp commanding officer Lt. Col. Henry Blake to sign forms and documents while Blake was consistently oblivious as to what he was signing.
It’s entirely plausible that one afternoon, when Justice rolled into Charleston for a COVID-19 briefing, Bray Cary or some other aide put the letter in front of him during his pre-briefing briefing, saying, “Sign this, governor.”
Speaking of Justice, a reader noted his contradictory messaging on the pandemic, commenting on Justice’s briefing Wednesday: “He pleaded once again for West Virginians to please, please wear masks and observe guidelines on distancing and large gatherings. But during that same briefing, he gave a campaign speech glorifying President Trump.
“As long as West Virginia is a Trump state, citizens in regions other than Charleston and Morgantown will follow Trump’s lead on the virus. They won’t take it seriously…they won’t wear masks and they will stand side by side if they want to.
“The governor doesn’t realize that when he urges people to support Trump, he is contradicting his message that we should respect the virus, wear masks, and observe distancing.”
Considering that the number of COVID-19 cases in the state jumped 2,598 in one week, the reader’s point might be well taken.
Speaking of contradictory, back in July, Justice announced he would commit $50 million of the $1.25 billion-plus of federal CARES Act funds to broadband expansion.
Now, four months later, and with less than nine weeks before any uncommitted CARES Act funds have to be returned to Uncle Sam, those in the know about the technology are concerned there’s no plan in place to designate which broadband projects are to be funded.
Everything I know about broadband could fit on the head of a pin and leave plenty of room for dancing angels, but the experts tell me this is highly technical stuff that can’t be worked out during the free portion of a Zoom teleconference — and fear that nine weeks is not enough time to put viable plans together.
Certainly, there could be a political explanation for the foot-dragging: For every constituency made happy with the awarding of a broadband project, a dozen other constituencies will be miffed that they were passed over.
Finally, the debate over whether Secretary of State’s Office employee Dave Gilpin/Allen should be moonlighting as a talk radio show host has missed the point.
The issue is not whether he’s off the state payroll clock while doing his radio gig. It’s an issue of whether it’s appropriate for an employee of an agency that should strive to be nonpartisan should be participating in a partisan activity.
The reality is that talk radio is, by its nature, a politically conservative medium. Attempts at left-of-center talk radio programming have consistently failed, and for good reason: Liberals tend to read, conservatives tend to listen to talk radio and watch Fox News.
Let’s put the shoe on the other foot: Let’s imagine if Secretary of State Natalie Tennant had allowed an employee to moonlight by, say, hosting a podcast. Let’s presume that, while that podcast featured guests from both major parties, its audience skewed liberal, and that the host structured the podcast to appeal to that audience, including frequently incorporating texts and e-mails from those left-leaning listeners into each episode.
Republicans would be well within their rights to object: Even if the podcast strictly represented the personal opinions of the host, the fact that Secretary Tennant, the state’s chief elections officer, had allowed an employee to be involved in a politically partisan undertaking would raise issues about appropriateness.
We know from depositions that Secretary of State Mac Warner was aware that Gilpin/Allen was a conservative talk radio host active in state Republican Party politics when he hired him. (Communications director Mike Queen was also a conservative talk jock when Warner hired him.)
While Warner couldn’t have known in 2017 that a local radio station would have an opening for a talk radio host in the spring of 2020, he could well assume if he allowed Gilpin/Allen to do a radio gig again, he wouldn’t be doing traffic reports or sports talk.
On-the-clock, off-the-clock, it just doesn’t pass the smell test.