By Dijon Stokes, Voting Rights Project Manager
In the year 2020, access to the internet is such an integrated part of everyday life for most Americans that basic access to it may seem like a non issue.
However, lack of internet access is a serious problem for many West Virginians, where a mountainous terrain combined with low incomes can make accessing information especially difficult. Many of the areas with the poorest internet access are also where we see the highest concentrations of racial minorities.
Take McDowell County in southern West Virginia for example. It has one of the highest proportions of Black West Virginians, the lowest median household income in the state, and more than 31 percent of residents without access to a smartphone, tablet or computer. This presents multiple issues for a community that already faces the adversity of being a minority in the current political climate.
Registering to vote without internet access is more difficult; everything from finding your county clerk’s office to securing a potentially life-saving absentee ballot is harder without the information source that so many of us take for granted.
Given the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic, absentee ballots take on a special role this election cycle. Due to the state of emergency, all West Virginians are eligible to vote by absentee ballot. But first, they have to request a ballot, a process that is easier for some than others.
The most publicized and easiest method for most citizens to request an absentee ballot is through the Secretary of State’s online portal. For some West Virginians, the portal is a fine resource, but given the incredible digital divide in our state, leaning on the internet to help people obtain an absentee ballot in the middle of a pandemic simply does not take into account the actual lives of its citizens.
In a state like West Virginia, it’s no solution at all.
The Secretary of State’s Office and county clerks did the right thing in the primary election when they mailed out absentee ballot applications to all registered voters in the state. Doing this ensured that everyone had the ability to obtain an absentee ballot regardless of access to the internet or ability to venture out in public during the pandemic.
For the general election, however, the Secretary of State’s Office is leaving it up to individual counties to decide whether to send absentee ballot applications in the mail. Keeping residents’ health a top priority and noting the success seen during the primary, counties like Lincoln and Ohio are mailing applications to all registered voters. We applaud this decision.
Some counties are placing voter registration applications in mailers as part of newspaper subscribers' newspaper package. Given the stark political polarization in the country where people often have their own media sources based on ideology, this could present an electoral advantage to candidates of similar political alignment as a newspaper’s editorial board.
This is why we’re calling on the Secretary of State’s Office and all 55 county clerks to use their resources and enumerated powers and mail out absentee ballot applications to all registered voters. Those who want to still exercise the in-person aspect of the process can and should vote early and practice social distancing best practices.
All voters should be able to safely vote regardless of which side of the digital divide they live.