West Virginia pulled off a statewide election largely conducted with mail-in absentee ballots, and by all accounts, it went well.
Of course, as with any human enterprise, particularly one conducted on such a large scale for the first time, it’s reasonable to think there were some hiccups. One of which was me.
Procrastinator that I am, I didn’t become concerned that my absentee ballot had not arrived until sometime Friday, June 5. It occurred to me that if it didn’t arrive in the next day’s mail, it would be too late to be mailed back in time to be tabulated on Election Day.
Saturday’s mail also brought no ballot, although a check of the secretary of state’s ballot-tracker function on its website showed that it had been postmarked May 30.
With no ballot Monday, and since my mail generally gets delivered in late afternoon, I went to the polls June 9 to cast a provisional ballot.
I was lucky, being in relatively good health and only barely ventured into the age group considered high risk, so I was able to go to my polling place and cast a provisional ballot.
When I got home at about 12:30 a.m. Wednesday, after working election night at the mothership, I opened the mailbox and, lo and behold, there was my absentee ballot, a day late and a dollar short.
In the course of analyzing some of the absentee ballot faux pas, Deak Kersey, general counsel for Secretary of State Mac Warner, asked to see my ballot in hopes the office could determine what went wrong.
A couple of days later, after consulting with the Postal Service, Kersey determined that several small errors had derailed my attempt to vote absentee.
First off, the envelope containing the ballot was too large to go through automatic mail processing machines. (Kersey said the secretary of state’s office had warned county clerks against using the old, oversized envelopes, but some, including Kanawha County’s Vera McCormick, had envelopes left from past elections and decided to use up the stock.)
That meant my ballot had to be manually processed, and that is where the second error occurred, according to Kersey.
According to the Postal Service’s Tracy Damron, on a busy day, upward of 4,000 letters and parcels will be manually processed at the South Charleston processing center.
For some reason, the mailing label for the ballot had the zip code in tiny, agate type (much smaller than the rest of the address), and so instead of making the short trip to my house, the envelope was sent to a ZIP code God knows where in the U.S. (Since it was manually processed, there was no tracking data.)
Generally speaking, a letter sent to a wrong ZIP code is usually in transit for seven days out and back. Mine was AWOL for nine days.
Based on Twitter inquiries, a handful of others statewide had similar issues, but nothing to suggest anything beyond isolated problems.
In other words, voting by mail in the June primary was a rousing success, as Warner has noted in this paper and other media outlets.
However, we can expect that tone to change between now and the November general election.
At the national level, President Donald Trump and U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr are already poisoning the well for voting by mail by making outrageously false claims of voter fraud.
Trump, who tends to say the quiet part out loud, denounced voting by mail, saying on Fox and Friends, “You’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”
(In a rarity for Trump, his point was true, that Republicans are at a severe disadvantage in high-turnout elections, which is why voter suppression is a hallmark of GOP election strategy.)
Locally, despite the success of voting by mail in the primary, Warner is already calling into question the exigency of voting by mail in the general election, suggesting that the state of emergency could be over by then and that it might be unfeasible to again send absentee ballot applications to all registered voters.
Also, in what seemed to be foreshadowing, Warner in a couple of interviews made reference to a county that had 1,000 overvotes — instances where voters voted for more than the maximum number of selections in a particular race — his point being that overvoting is a risk unique to absentee voting, since voting machines alert voters to overvotes.
While my first impression was that the overvotes were in a single race, and I was racking my brain to figure out what multi-delegate district that might be, I was advised the county in question turned out to be Cabell and the overvotes were spread among multiple races throughout the ballot.
While there were, by my count, 1,001 overvotes (of 20,514 ballots cast, with multiple national, state, county, municipal, school board, and judicial races on the ballot), 482 of those were cast in a multi-candidate county Board of Education race. Supreme Court and magistrate elections accounted for another 184 overvotes, while ironically, 88 overvotes were on six levy elections on the ballot — meaning that in those cases, the individual voted both for and against the levy.
In primary races, there were a total of only 60 Republican and 187 Democrat overvotes — on long ballots covering all primary races from president to the city council.
Perhaps instead of raising skepticism over absentee voting, the secretary of state’s office could come up with a public awareness campaign to help voters avoid overvoting on absentee ballots.
At any rate, we need to be on alert if the tone changes from voting by mail being a rousing success in June to becoming an impenetrable minefield of potential voter fraud heading into November.
After letting $1.25 billion of federal CARES Act funds sit in a vault for two months, Gov. Jim Justice unveiled his plan for appropriating the funds, declaring his unilateral authority to do so.
Notably, Justice wants to dedicate $100 million of the funds, ostensibly intended to provide COVID-19 relief to cities, counties, businesses and individuals, for “COVID-19-related highway projects.”
That raised questions as to 1, whether the governor has authority to appropriate funds without legislative approval, and 2, whether road paving is an appropriate use of pandemic relief funds.
As Sen. Joe Manchin quipped on a Fox News interview, he has yet to come across a pothole infected with coronavirus.
In one of his live-streaming campaign appearances/COVID-19 briefings, Justice defended his plan, stating, “We went and got every legal opinion that you could get, and gave them all of the information from the Highway Department on roads that were absolutely going to be vetted through the EMS in all kinds of situations to be able to qualify. Our expert opinions and our legal opinions said absolutely, these roads qualify.”
Normally, when a governor has a pressing legal question, he goes down the hall to request a formal opinion from the attorney general.
Last week, I asked the governor’s and attorney general’s offices for copies of legal opinions regarding the governor’s authority to appropriate CARES Act funds. (I also asked the Division of Highways for the list of COVID-19 related highways projects to be funded with the $100 million.)
The only reply I got was from Curtis Johnson, press secretary for Patrick Morrisey, who stated, “The office of the attorney general has not provided an advisory opinion on the matter.”
This also suggests the attorney general has not been asked to provide a legal opinion.
As much as Justice talks about transparency, the Justice administration is by far the least transparent of the six governors I’ve covered.
As governor, Justice has rarely followed convention, but failing to obtain an opinion from the attorney general on such a critical matter (the spending of $1.25 billion, the equivalent of one-fourth of a full year’s state general revenue budget) is unconscionable.
Leading up to his 2000 re-election campaign, Gov. Cecil Underwood quietly grew the governor’s civil contingency fund to $16 million (about $24 million in 2020 money), and then spent plumb near all of it going all over the state like Santa Claus during the summer and fall of 2000, handing out grants and awards.
That Justice might try to replicate Underwood’s spending spree using chunks of the federal stimulus is a reasonable concern.
I would be surprised if the Legislature doesn’t take him to court over the issue at some point.
Finally, with the likelihood that Justice will mandate the wearing of facemasks on Monday, I’m surprised that, with communications genius Bray Cary on staff and with his vaunted Communications Hub filling a floor of Building 3, nobody thought to produce pro-mask wearing public service ads.
I could envision a “Mask Up, Mountaineers” campaign, perhaps featuring Bob Huggins, Neal Brown, Don Nehlen, Jennifer Garner and Brad Paisley.
Better to have a media campaign to promote mask-wearing as a cool thing to do, rather than to hit people with an executive order that Justice himself has repeatedly said would be “divisive.”