CHARLESTON — All eligible West Virginia voters will be able to vote by mail during November’s general election, Secretary of State Mac Warner said Monday.
The relaxed medical exemption that allowed West Virginians to vote absentee-by-mail during the June primary election will extend to the general election, Warner said in a news release.
Because West Virginia remains under a “safer at home” order from Gov. Jim Justice amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Warner’s rule-making authority to relax the exemption to allow voters safe options to cast their ballots also remained intact.
“West Virginia voters should never have to choose between their health and their right to vote,” Warner said in the news release. “Let me be very clear. Any voter concerned about their health and safety because of COVID-19 will have the option to vote by absentee ballot.”
The relaxed medical exemption means voters who are concerned about possible exposure to COVID-19 can use that exemption to request an absentee-by-mail ballot.
Voters may begin applying for absentee ballots Aug. 11. The deadline to turn in an absentee ballot application is Oct. 28. Unlike the primary election, Mountain State voters will have to request absentee ballot applications for the general election.
For the primary election, Warner’s office sent out postcards in April to every eligible voter in the state to allow them to apply for the absentee ballot. Warner said county clerks told him after the primary they would prefer the application process be handled on a local level.
To make it easier for voters to apply for an absentee ballot, election officials are introducing an Absentee Ballot Application Portal on the Secretary of State’s website. A countdown timer on the application page indicated it would launch Aug. 11.
Approximately 450,909 West Virginians, or about 36.7% of the state’s eligible voters, voted in the 2020 primary election in June, according to the West Virginia 2020 Primary after Action Report.
Of those votes, 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.
In a typical election year, about 2% of ballots cast in a primary election are absentee, according to the report.
In the report, Warner said there were issues with the U.S. Postal Service in mailing absentee ballot applications and the ballots themselves. Among the issues were election mail being held for postage and errors and delays in delivery for hand-sorted mail, which included envelopes and postcards that were disruptive in the USPS sorting machines.
County clerks also told Warner that voters were concerned about the secrecy of their personal information on absentee ballot application postcards and human errors that occurred when county clerks’ employees had to decipher voters’ handwriting.
The online portal, Warner said, would help alleviate those issues.
“This remarkable tool will greatly reduce any burden on eligible voters to request an absentee ballot, assist county clerks with processing increases in absentee voting, and reduce errors and lost ballots,” Warner said.
Voters who can’t or don’t want to use the portal still can request an absentee ballot applications by contacting their county clerks’ offices by phone, email or fax, Warner said.
In the weeks since West Virginia’s June 9 primary election, Warner had said it wasn’t clear to him whether his authority to modify the absentee-by-mail voting exemptions would extend to the general election.
When HD Media reached out to Warner’s office last week, a representative said then he was working with the Governor’s Office to finalize the guidelines for the general election.
Former Secretary of State Natalie Tennant, who is the Democratic challenger to Republican Warner in this year’s general election, said on July 20 that changing the application process between the elections would cause voter confusion.
She also said West Virginia should be requesting more funding from Congress through the CARES Act to provide resources for both vote-by-mail and traditional in-person voting at precincts.
“Our county clerks have done a herculean job during this crisis and they deserve to have the resources to administer elections,” Tennant said in a July 20 release.
West Virginia received a little more than $3.7 million from the federal CARES Act, which Congress passed in April, to conduct its election. Congress allocated $400 million as emergency election funds made available to states through the guidelines of the Help America Vote Act.
During a Congressional hearing last week, Warner said West Virginia spent $1.6 million of its CARES Act money on the primary election and had about $2.1 million to use for the general election.
West Virginians have until Oct. 11 to register to vote in the 2020 general election.