This afternoon, WV Secretary of State Mac Warner announced that, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, registered voters in West Virginia would be able to vote by absentee ballot under the “medical emergency” provision of WV Code Sec. 3-3-1(a)(1)(A). We have worked closely with the Secretary of State’s office in recent days advocating that he take this position. We applaud this effort to increase access to the polls, especially at this time of national crisis.
Our goal is always to decrease barriers to the most fundamental right in any representative democracy — the right to vote. To that end, we have some additional recommendations for the Secretary to maximize the opportunity and ability for people to vote as we grapple with Covid-19 and the measures to limit its spread.
1. Take Affirmative Steps to Provide Absentee Ballots
Under current practice voters must affirmatively request that they be sent an absentee ballot. To maximize access to the ballot, we urge the Secretary to remove this requirement and provide ballots to all voters. West Virginia Code does require an oral or written request, but is not specific as to whether the request must come from the voter. The statute should be interpreted so that a county clerk could provide a written request for all voters in the county.
At a minimum, extensive outreach to solicit requests should be made to certain vulnerable populations such as those in nursing homes and homeless shelters. Additionally, an expansion of online ballot delivery, as used for military members, may be an option and may help to reduce logistical challenges.
Election officials should be permitted to begin processing mail-in ballots prior to the close of polls on Election Day, in order to save time and reduce the overall administrative burden due to increased demand and availability of absentee voting. If possible, canvassing and certification deadlines should be extended to account for delays in receiving and processing mail-in ballots.
2. Expand and Establish Polling Locations and Early Voting
We understand that certain polling locations—such as those located in housing developments for the elderly—will likely have to be changed to protect vulnerable populations. These decisions should be made as early as possible and notice should be available in print and online.
We also understand that for the protection of voters and poll workers additional measures to reduce crowds and ensure sanitation will likely need to be taken; this may result in longer wait times to vote. As a result, we encourage the Secretary to consider establishing more community voting locations to reduce the number of people congregating at any site and the time required to vote.
Under WV code, early voting can begin as early as 13 days before the election. Every polling place offering early voting should do so for the full amount of time authorized by code. This will also allow for maximum physical distancing and appropriate safety precautions to be taken. We understand that many of these suggestions require additional poll workers at a time when we are likely facing shortages. This crisis has displaced many people from the work force, and so long as appropriate safety measures and compensation is available, there is ample opportunity to recruit poll workers if aggressive steps are taken.
3. Protect Voting Rights
People who did not show an ID when registering to vote - notably those who registered by mail - are required to show some form of ID with an absentee ballot. Given the likely expansion of absentee voting - this requirement should be made clear, and voters should be given an opportunity to remedy if they failed to provide an ID.
Similarly, we should take proactive steps to ensure that ballots are not unnecessarily rejected for failure to match a signature. We recommend that if a ballot is rejected, the voter be given notice and a chance to confirm their vote.
4. Do Not Change Election Dates
The date of the election should not be changed except in the utmost of dire circumstances - and only if there was wide consensus among health experts that it is absolutely necessary.
However, we urge the Secretary to have a contingency plan in place if polling places do need to close.