CHARLESTON - In last year's historic election that saw the highest national midterm voter turnout in 100 years, voter turnout in West Virginia increased, but dropped from 42nd to 49th in the nation, according to a new report.
The report from the nonprofit VOTE organization, "America Goes to the Polls 2018: Voter Turnout and Election Policy in the 50 States," found that nationally 50.3 percent of eligible voters went to the polls in 2018, "the highest midterm turnout since 1914 and the largest increase from a previous midterm in U.S. history."
Nationally, voter turnout increased 13.6 percent from the 2014 midterms, as the 2018 elections became a referendum on the Trump presidency, the report notes.
However, West Virginia lagged behind most of the nation, the report stated, with a 42.5 percent turnout, ranking it 49th among the 50 states and the District of Columbia, dropping from 42nd in 2014.
West Virginia experienced a 10.5 percent increase in voter turnout from 2014, which ranked 30th overall.
Only Arkansas, at 41 percent, and Hawaii, at 39 percent, had lower voter turnout in 2018. Minnesota led the nation, with 64 percent turnout, followed by Colorado at 63 percent and Montana, Wisconsin and Oregon at 62 percent each.
"Despite the nationwide surge in voting, vast turnout differences between states remain," the report stated. "Election policies that made it harder or easier to vote were a major factor in those turnout differences, even more than political competition."
Nonprofit Voter found that all but one of the top 10 voter turnout states have either same-day voter registration or vote-at-home (also known as vote-by-mail) laws, while Colorado is both a same-day registration and vote-at-home state.
(Legal in four states, the vote-at-home process mails ballots to registered voters at least two weeks ahead of the election. Voters may then return their ballots by mail, at their polling places on Election Day, or in person at designated early voting locations.)
Conversely, the report found that eight of the 10 lowest voter turnout states have voter registration deadlines that fall four weeks before Election Day. (West Virginia has a registration deadline 21 days before the election.)
The report also found a surge in registrations in states that have automatic voter registration, but only had data from five of the 17 states where individuals are automatically registered to vote when they apply for, or renew drivers' licenses, unless they opt out.
In 2016, as part of legislation requiring voters to present identification at their polling places, West Virginia enacted an automatic voter registration law, set to go into effect this July 1.
Citing delays by the Division of Motor Vehicles to upgrade its computer systems to be able to process automatic voter registrations, the Legislature this session passed a bill to delay implementation of automatic voter registration until July 1, 2021, after the 2020 general election. The bill (SB 491) is awaiting action by the governor.
During the 2016 campaign, now-Secretary of State Mac Warner denounced the new law, calling it a plot by billionaire George Soros to register as many people as possible, including "citizens, non-citizens, felons," in order to "have more voters for the Democratic Party."
Responding to the report Monday, Warner noted that West Virginia's improving turnout numbers came in spite of continued population loss in the state, with an additional 134,285 voters casting ballots in 2018 compared to 2014.
"Even though West Virginia is experiencing an increase in the number of voters participating in federal elections, there is still more work to do in encouraging registered voters to participate," Warner said in a statement. "We share the responsibility of overall voter turnout with the candidates, the political parties and public interest groups."
Since taking office as secretary of state in January 2017, Warner said his focus has been on voter registration, cybersecurity, voter roll clean up, and working with county clerks to update voting machines and technology.
"It has never been easier to register, or safer to vote in West Virginia," he said.
A national nonpartisan program of the Human Services Providers Charitable Foundation Inc., Nonprofit VOTE provides training, resources, technical assistance, tools and support to the nonprofit sector to integrate pro-voter turnout activities into existing programs.
The report was prepared in conjunction with the U.S. Elections Project, founded and directed by Michael McDonald at the University of Florida as an information source for the U.S. electoral system.