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Half of WV voters cast their ballots by mail in June. Election officials wonder if they'll have the legal authority and manpower to make it happen again.

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A little more than half of the more than 436,000 ballots cast in West Virginia’s 2020 primary election earlier this month were mail-in absentee ballots, Secretary of State Mac Warner said Monday.

For comparison, historically in West Virginia, about 3% of votes in a presidential primary election are cast by absentee ballot, Warner said.

In total, 224,734 ballots were cast by mail, according to the secretary of state’s website, meaning more work and more paperwork for the state’s 55 county clerks, their staffs and often the staffs from other county courthouse offices that were off limits to in-person visits early during the coronavirus pandemic lockdown.

Now, with the election behind them, Warner said he and county clerks are working to figure out what their options are for the November general election, especially if there’s no state of emergency that gives them and, most importantly, Mountain State voters, flexibility to vote without potentially exposing themselves to the virus.

“If the state of emergency is lifted, then that capability goes away,” Warner said Monday. “We, of course, want to continue to provide as many options as possible to the voters of West Virginia. To do so, we have to abide by state law, and state law is that you have to apply for that absentee ballot, and it has to be in your own handwriting.”

When Gov. Jim Justice declared a state of emergency on March 16, that gave Warner the authority to delay the primary election by about a month and relax the absentee voting rules to allow more people to be eligible to use that method of voting, per guidance he received from state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey later that month.

Now that some of the governor’s previous restrictions on socializing and other activities are being relaxed, Warner said, he again will be looking to the attorney general to determine what his and, ultimately, voters’, options will be by November.

“The concern now is that these emergency situations are being lifted both nationally and here inside the state,” Warner said. “The courthouses are going to opened back up, and the two-fold thing that is going to come at [the county clerks] is continuing customer service and not having the availability of these other assets from other county offices.”

Warner spoke with county elections officials during a call on Thursday. He said they had an “open, honest discussion” about the election.

“As we anticipated, it was a lot of work on the clerks,” Warner said. “They rose to the occasion and were able to pull off this extremely unusual election during a most trying time.”

Earlier this month, Donnie Plotner, the chief deputy of elections in Berkeley County, said his office hired an additional six temporary employees to help process the nearly 13,000 absentee ballot requests his office received, but staff still had to work nights and weekends to make sure all of the absentee ballot applications and ballots were properly processed.

In Jackson County, the closed courthouses gave County Clerk Cheryl Bright the flexibility to work skeleton crews in her office to keep employees separated so, if one person was exposed to the virus, a second team could keep the office running leading up to the election.

In addition to seeking the attorney general’s advice, Warner said he will be relaying county clerks’ concerns to the Governor’s Office, which provided $800,000 from the governor’s contingency fund to mail out pink postcards that served as applications for absentee ballots for the June primary election.

The Secretary of State’s Office received about $3.797 million from the federal CARES Act. Warner’s office had to come up with a 20% match to receive the money, so his office had about $4.5 million to support the primary election.

With reimbursement requests still coming in from county clerks’ offices, Warner estimated that the special circumstances of the election would cost about half of that $4.5 million.

About $550,000 has been spent so far on labor, and another $500,000 was spent on personal protective equipment for employees, poll workers and voters, Warner said.

The Secretary of State’s Office had received reimbursement requests from 12 of West Virginia’s 55 counties, as of Monday.

During a Kanawha County Commission meeting on Wednesday, Commission President Kent Carper said the county’s election could end up costing more than $500,000. He said at that meeting that the county had paid $215,000 to poll workers and $250,000 in postage.

Beyond the costs, Warner said he also has been in touch with officials from the U.S. Postal Service to discuss some issues that occurred with mailed ballots. Warner said his office received reports during the election cycle from voters who said their ballots were delayed in the mail.

Warner’s office even has received a few reports of people who received their absentee ballots only this week, he said. It was his understanding that those people who hadn’t received their absentee ballots cast provisional ballots in-person on Election Day.

Warner said Postal Service officials had identified the issues that happened and taken corrective measures, saying, “any time you bring in that volume of mail, there’s going to be delays.”

“There was nothing widespread, nothing systemic that had to have a criminal-type investigation,” Warner said. “Those are the issues with voting using the mail. That’s why I want to keep it as an option but it shouldn’t become the sole source or sole method.”

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