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Moore Capito

Judiciary Committee Chairman Moore Capito, R-Kanawha, speaks before the House Judiciary Committee on Feb. 11.

A large majority of speakers at a House Judiciary Committee virtual public hearing Monday spoke against a bill to change state election law, saying it would create obstacles to voting.

Provisions in Senate Bill 565 would eliminate two popular days of early voting, reduce the time period for starting the process of purging “idle” voters from the rolls from four to two years and change voter registration at state Division of Motor Vehicles offices from requiring drivers to affirmatively opt out of registering to vote to requiring an affirmative opt-in.

“We have some of the lowest turnout among young people in the entire country. We cannot afford to suppress young people’s votes,” said Takeiya Smith, a state youth organizer. “Restricting and suppressing young people’s ability to vote will only increase their exodus from West Virginia.”

Under the bill, the 10-day early voting window would be moved up, ending the Tuesday rather than the Saturday before Election Day. That, some speakers said, would eliminate what they said are the two most popular days for early voting, the Friday and Saturday before Election Day.

“Eliminating these days after 20 years because suddenly it’s too much work is like stores closing on Black Friday because cashiers think it’s too much work,” said Julie Archer of West Virginia Citizens for Clean Elections.

“It will give us a little extra room from the last hour of early voting to the first hour of Election Day,” Mercer County Clerk Verlin Moye said.

Patti Hamilton, executive director of the state Association of Counties, followed up, saying, “I can assure you 55 county clerks did not get together and decide to suppress anyone’s vote.”

Proponents of the bill Monday consisted of county clerks and representatives of conservative out-of-state organizations, including the Foundation for Government Accountability and Judicial Watch, as well as people such as Cleta Mitchell, a lawyer who represented former President Donald Trump after the 2020 election in his claims of voter fraud.

“I would encourage people to read the bill or it may become mischaracterized, as the Georgia bill has become mischaracterized,” said Robert Popper of Judicial Watch, referring to legislation passed in that state that critics say is designed to restrict voting. The change prompted a lawsuit contending the new law violates the federal Voting Rights Act.

Mississippi Secretary of State Michael Watson, a member of the executive committee of Republican Secretaries of State, also spoke, but limited his comments to support for a provision in the bill that would allow first-responders sent to disaster areas to vote absentee.

Some speakers noted West Virginia’s legislation is on the Brennan Center for Justice’s list of 361 restrictive voting bills introduced in 47 states.

“This bill has no real relevance except to be in solidarity with other states to suppress Black and brown voters across America,” said Owens Brown, state NAACP president.

“I’m concerned about contributing to voter apathy,” said Margaret Chapman Pomponio of West Virginia Free. “We already have a low voter turnout. We need to make voting easier, not harder.”

Former Secretary of State Natalie Tennant argued the Legislature should not be basing state election law on what is most convenient for county clerks.

“I say, ‘What about the voters? What can we do for them?’” she said.

The bill was not on the House Judiciary Committee’s Monday agenda.

“We intend to look into this bill further with the input we’ve heard today,” Judiciary Committee Chairman Moore Capito, R-Kanawha, said in closing out the hour-long hearing.

Reach Phil Kabler at hdmediallc.com, 304 348-1220, or follow

@PhilKabler on Twitter.

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