Without extra money from the state, Lincoln County Clerk Direl Baker thought it was a “foregone conclusion” that no one would be mailing absentee ballot applications to West Virginia voters for the 2020 General Election.
It wasn’t until Lincoln County commissioners asked him if he could do it earlier this summer, telling him they had the money to pay for it, that he realized it even was an option.
“I thought it was great because the process for us went great in the primary,” Baker said. “Of course, it’s a lot of work. It’s not something I prefer to do because it is a lot of work on us, but I think it is a benefit to the voters to have all these options.”
All Baker had to do from Lincoln County was ask.
After he contacted election officials in the Secretary of State’s Office and told them what he wanted to do, they created the application form that Baker and his staff now have mailed out to the roughly 12,500 registered voters in Lincoln County at a cost of about $8,000 after Baker had the applications locally printed and paid for postage.
“For us, the whole process just worked a whole lot better for us to go ahead and do it this way,” said Baker, who has been Lincoln County Clerk since 2012.
In Ohio County, County Commission President Tim McCormick likewise said they were ready to pick up the cost when they learned the West Virginia Secretary of State’s Office wouldn’t be mailing out absentee ballot applications like state officials had during the primary election.
“We thought that we should be consistent with what we did in the primary,” he said.
It cost officials in Ohio County $15,000 to print and mail applications there, McCormick said. As of the end of July, there were 30,091 registered voters in Ohio County. McCormick said election officials didn’t send the applications to people who already had filed a request for an absentee ballot.
“It was an unanimous decision [by county commissioners] and a small price to pay to give people the opportunity to vote,” McCormick said. “That’s the name of the game — we want to give everyone the opportunity to vote.”
West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner said it was a “moral obligation” of the state to mail out such applications ahead of the primary election in June, after Gov. Jim Justice had issued a stay-at-home order, which was effective March 23.
Between Gov. Justice issuing his stay-at-home order and the Mountain State’s primary election, which was delayed by almost a month to June 9, Warner’s office mailed out absentee ballot applications to all registered voters in the state.
Warner was able to use his emergency rule-making authority to make it so all West Virginia voters could vote absentee if they wanted to avoid spreading or catching the novel coronavirus. That rule still stands for the 2020 General Election on Nov. 3, meaning all registered voters in West Virginia can vote absentee-by-mail, if they so chose.
In total, 262,362 absentee ballots were requested, and 224,362 absentee ballots were returned by the voters to the county clerks, Mike Queen, director of communications for the Secretary of State’s Office, said. That represents about half of the total votes cast in the primary election.
After the primary election was over and the stay-at-home order was lifted, Warner said county clerks throughout the state said they preferred the state not mail out the applications again. Warner received reports from county clerks who said the application process had led to some issues from misreading of voters’ handwriting or general human errors in data entry when those applications manually were processed in local clerks’ offices, he said.
That being said, the clerks are well within their legal rights to mail out absentee ballot applications and other information about the general election, Warner said.
“The county clerks are the chief election officers in their respective counties, and they are allowed to take actions and run the elections as they see fit,” Warner said. “They’re acting within state law, so when they ask for guidance, we can provide guidance.”
Election officials in Ohio County “had no problems at all in the primary election,” McCormick said.
“We don’t expect any problems this time,” said McCormick, who has been an Ohio County Commissioner for 24 years. “We don’t expect any problems with the mail either. If we send out ballots on Sept. 18, you have almost a month and a half to fill it out and have it in on time.”
Warner said his office was working to send out about 34,000 postcards to West Virginians who have been identified as being eligible to vote, but aren’t registered.
As of Aug. 28, about 48,000 people had requested absentee ballots, Queen said.
Of those requests, 23,300 came through an online portal hosted by the Secretary of State, and 24,800 came from calls to county clerks offices or by mail, Queen said.
On Monday, representatives from two groups, WV Citizens for Clean Elections and ACLU of West Virginia, sent a letter to Gov. Justice and Warner, asking them to mail absentee ballot applications to all registered voters in the state.
In the letter, the groups say while the online portal is “an excellent tool for those who are able to use it,” a large portion of voters in West Virginia lack internet connectivity or digital devices to access the portal.
They say that having some counties mailing out ballots while others don’t is confusing and unfair.
“A county by county decision on this issue cannot guarantee the benefit of an individual application to every registered voter regardless of where they live and their capacity to access your online portal,” the representatives say in the letter. “We must not put additional barriers to the ability of these voters to participate fully in our upcoming general election.”
Information about the online portal, early voting, and voting on election day is included in the applications sent out in Lincoln and Ohio counties, Baker and McCormick said.
It isn’t so much about propping up one method of voting above all others as much as it is about making sure people have a safe option for voting that best suits their needs, Baker said.
He said the primary election went exactly as it should, with a steady, but not overbearing, stream of votes cast by absentee-by-mail and votes cast in-person during the early voting period and on election day.
“I know it’s the right thing to do for Lincoln County voters,” Baker said. “It worked for the county clerk’s office. It worked for the voters. It worked to flatten that voter turnout line and spread everybody out.”