Op-Ed: State should make absentee voting easier

Free and fair elections are the cornerstone of our democracy. West Virginians should not have to choose between exposing themselves to the deadly coronavirus and exercising their right to vote. Governor Jim Justice and Secretary of State Mac Warner have an opportunity to once again safeguard our right to vote while protecting the health of West Virginia voters. But, as of today, despite the surge of coronavirus cases and West Virginia’s vulnerable population, the plan for the November 3rd election is insufficient to assure maximum access to the ballot.

It appears that, because of the continuing state of emergency, voters will still be allowed to use the risk of contracting Covid-19 as an acceptable reason for voting absentee. But today, the governor signaled the state will likely not mail absentee ballot application to all registered voter, as they did in the primary.  

 The usual process of voting absentee is somewhat cumbersome. First, a voter must download or request an application for an absentee ballot. Next, the voter must complete and mail in the signed application. Then, the county clerk checks the voter’s registration and mails them the appropriate ballot. The voter then returns the signed and sealed ballot to the county clerk.

It’s clear this pandemic will still be with us in November. No one can predict which counties will be hot spots or how many of us will be quarantined. To make sure each of us has the opportunity to fully participate in our democracy, Governor Justice and Secretary of State Warner need to act now to make sure no West Virginia citizen is kept from the polls by barriers related to the coronavirus. Specifically, the Governor and Secretary of State Warner should encourage voter participation and do what they did for our primary election—mail absentee ballot applications to each registered voter.

The spring primary election proved this could be done. West Virginia avoided the pandemonium, hours-long lines, legal squabbles and accusations of voter suppression that plagued primaries in many other states. We didn’t make this a partisan issue. Democrats and Republicans both voted absentee in large numbers. Of the 450,742 ballots cast in West Virginia’s 2020 Primary, 224,378 (50%) were absentee ballots. There was little to no delay in reporting election results.  The only irregularity reported – a postal carrier’s interference with a handful of absentee ballot applications — was immediately detected and corrected. No voter – not one – has been accused of any mail-in ballot related issues.

The reason for failure to implement the same procedure that was used in the June 9th primary is somewhat unclear. Some argue that it was too costly. Others fear that it placed an undue burden on county clerks. And, still others have hinted that this failure is an attempt at voter suppression. However, it is clear that past experience demonstrates that the legal authority and administrative capacity to allow every voter to cast an absentee ballot if he or she believes that this is the safest way to vote already exists. It worked in the spring. It can help safeguard our health in the fall.

Time to implement this procedure is running short. There are a little over 100 days to the November election. It takes time to print and mail ballot applications. The longer the delay, the shorter time our hard-working county clerks will have to prepare. Fairness to voters and candidates demands that the ground rules for this election should be clearly established and widely communicated before voting begins. Our governor has been proactive in protecting the citizens of West Virginia from the spread of the coronavirus. Now, he needs to take the steps necessary to protect our health and our vote. 

– Kathleen Abate, chair, Monongalia County Democratic Executive Committee

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