CHARLESTON — Access to absentee ballots is “necessary but challenging,” West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner told a Congressional committee Wednesday.
Warner was one of four witnesses to testify before the U.S. Senate Committee on Rules and Administration during a meeting about preparations for the 2020 General Election.
Warner told the committee, which includes Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., that West Virginia had a successful primary election in June by learning key lessons from other states that hosted their elections prior to the Mountain State during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We were so successful because we learned from other states that poll worker recruitment was crucial, uniformity is helpful, and absentee mailed ballots are necessary but challenging,” Warner said in his prepared remarks to the committee.
The meeting also included testimony from Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett, Saint Louis County Election Board Republican Director of Elections Rick Stream, and President and Executive Director for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law Kristen Clarke.
The testimony and questioning from Senators largely dealt with the challenges some states experienced in operating a safe and fair election during the pandemic and what resources they further needed to make sure the general election in November was also safe and fair.
In March, Gov. Jim Justice issued a State of Emergency declaration that allowed Warner emergency rule-making authority to make it so all West Virginians were eligible to vote absentee due to medical and health issues, if they wanted to vote absentee to limit potential exposure to COVID-19.
Justice also delayed the primary election by about a month, moving it from May 12 to June 9.
During his testimony, Warner said a stay-at-home order from the governor gave him the authority to relax requirements to vote absentee and time to automatically send out absentee ballot applications to registered voters.
Now that the order had been lifted, Warner said county clerks had asked to return to the typical process in which voters request their own absentee ballots.
He did not indicate that there were any changes about voters being able to use the medical exemption to vote absentee during the general election.
“We must now educate voters to changes based on an unpredictable virus,” Warner said.
The committee’s questioning ranged from how much money states needed to purchase protective equipment, cleaning supplies, office supplies and other equipment to make the 2020 general election work during the pandemic.
“Congress must allocate at least an additional $3.6 billion needed to supplement the $400 million in funding previously allocated in the CARES Act,” Clarke said during her testimony.
West Virginia received a little more than $3.7 million from the CARES Act to conduct it’s election. A total of $400 million was allocated as emergency election funds made available to states through the guidelines of the Help America Vote Act, referred to as HAVA during the committee meeting.
Warner told the committee that Congress had gotten funding calculations for West Virginia “just about right.”
About $1.6 million of West Virginia’s allocation went toward the primary election, leaving the state $2.1 million to use for the general election, Warner told the committee.
As of Wednesday, 34 of West Virginia’s 55 counties had been approved for more than $1.1 million in reimbursements through the CARES Act, according to the Secretary of State’s website.
West Virginia did not experience issues including those of other states on election day, including hours’ long lines at polling places and shortages of volunteer poll workers.
Recruiting poll workers does remain a challenge, Warner said.
In her testimony, Clarke told the committee that $1.4 billion of the proposed $3.6 billion would be required to print ballots, pay postage, set up drop boxes, and process and track ballots for the estimated mail-in absentee voting process nationwide during the general election.
Approximately 450,909 West Virginians voted in the 2020 primary election, according to a report on the primary election from the Secretary of State’s Office. That’s about 36.7% of the state’s eligible voters who participated in the election.
Of those more than 450,000 voters, 49.9% of ballots were cast through the mail via West Virginia’s absentee voting process, and 40% of voters cast their ballots in-person on election day. Another 9.4% voted in person during the state’s 10-day early voting period.
Warner told the committee, which is chaired by Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., that West Virginia offered more ways to vote than any other state, saying it is “easier to vote and harder to cheat than ever before.”
He said no cases of COVID-19 in West Virginia had been traced back to any in-person polling locations during the primary election.