Last week, the Charleston Gazette-Mail chose to report only partial-truths regarding voter registration and list maintenance in West Virginia. When a news agency reports half-truths, it sows discord and has a negative impact on voters’ confidence in our elections. It leads to voter disenfranchisement.
The election world changed in 2017 when the U.S. named elections “critical infrastructure” in response to Russian meddling in the 2016 and 2018 U.S. elections. The Russians’ goal was “to set Americans against their own government.” When the press reports on something as sacred as the constitutional right to vote, it is essential to report all the facts. So, here is “the rest of the story” or the whole truth.
A couple of weeks ago, Charleston Gazette-Mail reporter Phil Kabler requested data for all 55 West Virginia counties’ voter registrations and cancellations, broken down by political party. My office provided the data, along with a plain-language summary of voter registration list maintenance processes and laws. In an audio-recorded interview, my staff sat down in person with Mr. Kabler to answer his questions.
Yet, last Sunday rather than reporting the facts, the Gazette-Mail allowed a Twitter headline that inferred that something inappropriate is happening with the cleaning of West Virginia voter rolls.
Specifically, the online headline read, “More WV Democrats than Republicans have been purged from voter rolls. Is that unexpected?” The Gazette-Mail tweeted, “The Secretary of State’s Office removed more Democrats than Republicans from voter rolls in every county in the state during a purge of inactive registrations, data shows.” And the Gazette-Mail Sunday edition article reported, “Dems hit harder by voter purge.”
These headlines imply that the “Secretary of State’s Office” has canceled more Democrats than Republicans. However, under the law — and explained repeatedly to Mr. Kabler — the Secretary of State cannot cancel a single voter registration record. This was very clearly explained in writing and during the audio-recorded interview. In West Virginia, only county clerks have the authority to register or cancel voter registration files and only after a methodical and uniform statewide process. The Gazette-Mail knew these facts. And by the way, “voters” are not “purged” — voter registrations are canceled when people die, move, get felony convictions or cancel their registrations.
Also not reported is the fact Democrats have been canceled at a greater rate than Republicans for decades. In recent years, from 2014 to 2016, with a Democrat Secretary of State in office, counties canceled approximately 24,000 more Democrats than Republicans. Importantly, the recent 181,000-plus cancellations were of voters flagged under the previous Democrat Secretary of State’s tenure. More than 230,000 voter files were identified by counties as potentially subject to cancellation prior to my taking office; there simply wasn’t the emphasis to remove those names from the rolls. My administration inherited a stalled process, and voters deserve to know these facts.
It should also be reported that at the same time the county clerks canceled over 181,000 outdated, duplicate, deceased, inactive and convicted felon voter files, clerks have also registered more than 153,000 real, live and eligible voters in West Virginia. Of those, more than 44,000 new voters are high school seniors. The Gazette-Mail ignored this fact, as well.
So, what’s really going on? For starters, West Virginia is losing population according to Census data. For decades, Democrats have outnumbered Republicans and independent voters. Objectively speaking, it makes sense that as list maintenance is conducted to keep voter rolls up-to-date and accurate, more Democrat names will be removed than others. But those facts did not make it into the stories, either. The percentage decreases provided to the Gazette-Mail show that the voter registration cancellations by party are within a couple percentage points of each other.
My decades of service in the military, overseas and now as co-chair of the National Association of Secretaries of State Election Committee have taught me that the media is an essential team player in communicating good news to the public. Clean voter rolls in West Virginia is a good news story that needs to be told and told properly.
I look forward to fixing this lack of whole-truth reporting by the Gazette-Mail. To their credit, Gazette-Mail officials agreed to come to my office to discuss these issues, and they published this op-ed to fully inform the voters. For me, this is not a partisan issue. This is about the integrity of our democracy. I look forward to continuing this dialogue with all members of the media. My door remains open to all reporters seeking to report the whole truth.