Reporter’s Notebook: Rock the Vote

Election Day is only a few months away, and while there will be much focus on the candidates and races, far little attention will be paid to making sure you’re registered to vote. That’s why September is National Voter Registration Month.

Just for a disclaimer, I’m a former assistant communications director for the West Virginia Secretary of State’s Office. Making sure people are registered was a big part of my job, including making sure people understood the laws, processes and deadlines.

For example, we all know the first Tuesday in November is Election Day. This year the date is Nov. 6. But if you’re not registered to vote, do you know when the last day you can register is? It is Tuesday, Oct. 16. If you’re not registered by Oct. 16, you can’t vote during early voting or the general election.

By the way, early voting starts Wednesday, Oct. 24, until Saturday, Nov. 3. The only days you can’t vote during this period are Sundays. During the week the hours depend on your county clerk’s office hours, but Saturday’s are usually 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Check with your local county clerk for times and locations. Most of the time you vote at your county courthouse, but not every county does it the same way.

So, what can you do between now and Oct. 16? The Secretary of State’s Office has an easy link for you: GoVoteWV.com. It’s a one-stop shop for all the things you need to know as a voter or as a potential voter. Still need to register to vote? You can do that there. Once you register, your information will be sent to your county clerk and you’ll receive a voter registration card in the mail with your district and precinct information.

If you’re already registered, you can get sample ballots or find your polling place if you’re not planning to early vote. You can find out the multiple kinds of voter identification you can bring to the polls. There’s county clerk contact information, and you can even track absentee and provisional ballots.

The most important feature, in my opinion, is the ability to check your voter registration. Whether you just recently registered, or you’ve been a long-time voter, you should always check your voter registration information, which you can update online. Need to change political parties? Did you move, even if it was just down the block? You can easily update this information online.

If you move, whether it be within the state, and especially if you move within the same county or city, I can’t stress how important it is to change your address with your county clerk. They’re not mind readers. If you move within your county and choose to early vote, there’s no way for the county clerk to know.

State code requires periodic voter roll clean up. County clerks frequently need to remove voter registration files for people who have moved out-of-state, are deceased, or who have been convicted of a felony (if you served your felony sentence, you get your voter rights back in West Virginia).

But if you moved within your home county the last couple of years or more and haven’t updated your address with your county clerk, you could inadvertently be removed from the voter rolls. For example, Secretary of State’s Office DOES NOT have the authority to remove a voter from the county rolls. What they do, however, is manage the statewide voter registration system.

Part of that job entails providing county clerks with databases to use when they clean their rolls. One of these databases is the U.S. Postal Service’s National Change of Address database. Chances are when you moved you didn’t call your county clerk, but you probably did go through the NCOA process to make sure you got your mail at your new home.

The Secretary of State’s Office compares the state voter registration database with the NCOA, then flags those voters forwards that information to the local county clerk. The county clerk then mails out confirmation cards those voters. If you get one of these cards, you have to mail it back to the county clerk so they can update their files. Unfortunately, most people don’t pay any attention and throw this card away.

If that card is not returned (or is returned “undeliverable”), you’re still not removed from the voter rolls. The county clerk simply marks you file as “inactive.” If your file is marked inactive, you can still vote as you normally would do, but if you don’t update your registration during the next two federal election cycles, your file will be removed.

It’s not a conspiracy between the Secretary of State and your county clerk. It’s simply the law, both state and federal. That’s why it’s important to go to GoVoteWV.com and check your registration.

So, armed with this information, mark your calendars and make sure you get out there and vote.

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Speaking of Secretary of State, one last interesting tidbit. Natalie Tennant, a former Secretary of State, has filed pre-candidacy paperwork for 2020. Whether that’s for another try at Secretary of State (she served two terms between 2008 and 2016) or possibly another run for governor (her first run was for a special election in 2011, losing to former Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin), we’ll have to wait and see.

Pre-candidates don’t have to say what office they’re running for, but it does give them an opportunity to fundraise and figure out if they have the support to make an official run.

Tennant is the manager of state advocacy for the Voting Rights and Elections project at the Brennan Center for Justice.

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