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Warner reveals absentee ballot plans

CHARLESTON — Those wishing to vote absentee in the November general election due to the novel coronavirus can still do so according to West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner with a new online portal launching next month to make applying easier.

But don’t expect to automatically be mailed an application.

Warner released plans on Monday for the Nov. 3 general election, including how it plans to handle absentee ballots.

State election officials clarified that the emergency rule filed by the Secretary of State’s Office March 20 still allows voters to cite the “other medical reason” excuse on the absentee ballot application for the COVID-19 pandemic as long as Gov. Jim Justice’s state of emergency is ongoing.

“West Virginia voters should never have to choose between their health and their right to vote,” Warner said in a statement. “Just as in the 2020 primary election, voters following state and federal authorities’ recommendations to protect their health by remaining home have the option to cast a ballot in person or by absentee ballot.”

According to the emergency rule, “other medical reason” applies to “any threat to a person’s health posed by an epidemic, pandemic, outbreak, disease, virus, or other medical emergency, which creates potential harm to the public interest, peace, health, safety, or welfare of citizens or voters.” No documentation is required when using “other medical reason.”

West Virginia has been under a state of emergency since March 16, followed by an executive order requiring residents to stay at home and closing all but essential businesses and facilities. Justice started re-opening businesses and activities at the end of April, replacing the stay-at-home order with a new safer-at-home order on May 4. The new order encourages residents to stay at home, but doesn’t require it.

Speaking Monday during his coronavirus briefing, Justice said he was leaving the decisions on how to proceed with absentee ballots up to Warner. Justice had previously used his executive order powers to move the primary election from May 12 to June 9 due to the pandemic.

“That’s the Secretary of State’s call,” Justice said. “Everybody is still, without any question, concerned and worried about this terrible virus and this potential killer. I’d say the Secretary of State will come out with more guidelines.”

Voters can start requesting absentee ballot applications from their local county clerk or downloading the application from the Secretary of State’s GoVoteWV.com website starting Aug. 11.

Starting Aug. 11, the Secretary of State’s Office will offer a new, secure online web portal to fill out absentee ballot applications. The goal of the new portal is to free resources for county clerks to focus on mailed-in absentee ballot applications, cut down on the expenses of paper and speed up delivery of absentee ballot applications to county clerks.

Warner Monday afternoon said county clerks proactively mailing out absentee ballots to all registered voters would likely not happen. The governor’s office provided the original funding for the postcard-sized applications.

“We are making it easier, faster, more secure, less work for the clerks by opening up a portal,” Warner said. “We are using technology to leverage the ability to get people their absentee ballots. People who want an absentee ballot can go online and request it. If they don’t have online capabilities, they can call their county clerk, they can pick it up in person, they can download it off our website.”

In the primary election, nearly half of the 450,909 ballots cast were absentee ballots, with 224,777 absentee ballots cast by voters. A total of 262,503 West Virginians out of 1.2 million registered voters requested absentee ballots, with 37,726 absentee ballots outstanding.

Warner said the effort to send applications to all voters was expensive at a cost of $900,000, yielded only 22 percent of registered voters filling out the applications, and resulted in issues with delivering ballots and even a guilty plea for tampering with absentee ballot applications.

“We’re adding more and more options, without the expense, without the delay, and without the problems of the U.S. Postal Service that we experienced in the primary election,” Warner said. “Over a million applications went that were not used. Those that were used we had problems with. People did not receive their ballot back in time and things were lost in the mail.”

Former Democratic Secretary of State Natalie Tennant, a challenger for Warner in the general election, has been critical of Warner for not quickly releasing details of absentee voting plans. Tennant said the general election should follow the same plan as the primary election, including the mailing of absentee ballot applications.

“Mac Warner has let down the voters of West Virginia because he’s changing the rules in the middle of the game,” Tennant said. “My question is why? The voters are anticipating an absentee ballot application. This is confusing and makes it harder to vote, especially to all those around the state with less than great internet access.”

According to a July 20 Pew Research Center poll, 65 percent of respondents believe that absentee ballot requests should not require a documented excuse, while 14 percent believe that COVID-19 should be a valid excuse for being allowed to vote absentee.

Oct. 28 is the last day a county clerk can accept an absentee ballot application.

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