HUNTINGTON — A class-action lawsuit has been filed against Cabell County Clerk Karen Cole for refusing to recognize and permit online voter registration within the county.
Thursday, the American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia and the National Voting Rights Project filed the lawsuit on behalf of Marshall University student Allison Mullins in Federal District Court in Huntington.
“Clerks in the other 55 counties in West Virginia have been using the online voter registration system with no known problems,” Jamie Lynn Crofts, ACLU-WV legal director, said in a news release. “It’s unconstitutional that voters in Cabell County are the only people in the state who can’t register to vote online.”
Crofts said Mullins recently moved to Cabell County and used the online registration system this week to update her voter registration information, unknowingly putting herself in jeopardy of being eligible to vote Nov. 8.
Tuesday, Oct. 18, was the deadline for voter registration in West Virginia.
“Since Karen Cole has refused to process all of these registrations automatically like all of the other county clerks are doing, we don’t know how many people this could affect,” Crofts said. “Thousands of people have been using this online system and we are very worried that people don’t know that they are going to have to complete this extra step ... Many people could be disenfranchised on Election Day because of it.”
Prior to the West Virginia primary in May, Kanawha and Cabell county clerks refused to recognize online voter registrations. The ACLU-WV filed an emergency petition with the Supreme Court of Appeals the week before the primary, but there was not enough time for the court to hear the case before the election.
Cole could not be reached for comment Thursday, but in an interview about voter registration deadlines with The Herald-Dispatch earlier this month, she discussed how her office staff is processing online voter registration applications and her reasoning for the method.
"We're not processing them directly off of online registration," Cole said. "We're mailing each one that applies through the online program a card for them to fill out to assure to us that the person making the application or changing that record is actually the person who owns that information."
Cole and Kanawha County Clerk Vera McCormick told The Herald-Dispatch in April they didn’t feel that online voter registration was secure because anyone can use the last four digits of someone's Social Security number and make changes to their record, and the lack of a live signature leaves the record compromised.
ACLU staff members said McCormick processed all of the online applications she received, and Kanawha County voters who used the online system were able to vote in May; however, Cole did not.
“Because Ms. Cole continues to refuse to use the online voter registration system, we were forced to file a lawsuit on behalf of prospective voters in Cabell County,” Crofts said.
The online registration was rolled out at the end of September after the Legislature passed a bill in 2013 allowing it.
To register online, including changing an address or party affiliation, residents must have a driver's license and the last four digits of their Social Security number. A person's signature is then pulled from the Division of Motor Vehicles website to authorize the changes.
Prior to this year’s primary election, approximately 33,000 voters in West Virginia had registered online. In Cabell County, at least 1,300 people registered online before the primary, and were mailed forms from the clerk's office.