Expanded Absentee Eligibility in WV
COVID-19 has caused many changes, including an unexpected change in the way West Virginians vote in 2020.
In the pre-COVID era, about 2% of ballots cast in West Virginia elections were absentee. This reflects the complicated nature of absentee voting: acquiring an application, making the request for a ballot, qualifying in one of numerous eligibility categories. This application process, even if a voter fits into a qualifying pigeonhole, is a deterrent. This can be seen by looking at West Virginia mail-in voting compared with other states.
COVID-19 demanded a change. On March 19, 2020, the Secretary of State (SOS) announced that any voter was eligible to vote absentee due to COVID-19. Then, a week later, March 26, the SOS went one step further: every registered voter would receive an absentee application in the mail.
Just like that: two dominoes fell. Universal eligibility. Applications mailed to all voters. But voters still had to fill out and return the applications.
Nonetheless, it was a success! Fully 50% of ballots counted were absentee (more detail about that election here). This success came about despite the fact that absentee voting came with little advance notice of this major change, little voter education, and rather limited and confusing instructions.
This one experience had another positive side effect: it raised the bar of expectations for the November 2020 election. Many voters just assumed that the same rules that worked so well for June would be followed for November.
But ... on July 27, 2020, the SOS announced different rules for November:
Expanded eligibility for absentee voting would remain.
Voters would not be mailed absentee applications.
Once again, voters face the barrier of having to request their own absentee application.
This should be easy for those with Internet access.
Anyone without Internet access must contact their county clerk to request an application by phone, email, or fax.
Access to the ballot for both groups depends on KNOWING the new rules. This may be a heavy lift, especially for voters who have just been assuming that the spring rules will apply for the fall.
To be clear, we do not know precisely how 2% absentee voting became 50%. How much of that change came simply from the ease of receiving the application in the mail? Receiving that card was a combination of voter education, a reminder, and the means to obtain a ballot. These new rules will take away both the voter education and reminder pieces. What will that do to absentee voting in West Virginia? We don't know.
Recent Action on Vote by Mail in the WV Legislature
Delegate Evan Hansen (D-Monongalia) introduced a bill in the 2020 session of the Legislature to bring Vote by Mail (VBM) to West Virginia. The bill HB 4742 was co-sponsored by Del. Mike Pushkin (D-Kanawha), Del. Danielle Walker (D-Monongalia), Del. Sean Hornbuckle (D-Cabell), and Del. John Doyle (D-Jefferson).
HB 4742 drew from the best practices of states already conducting their elections using VBM:
History of Vote by Mail in WV
HB 4742 also relied on rules written by the WV Secretary of State to implement the WV Vote by Mail Pilot Program in 2011. That program permitted certain municipalities to adopt VBM for municipal elections for a few elections cycles.
Little information is available on the outcome of the pilot. We do know that Morgantown was one of the WV cities that used VBM successfully in its municipal elections. Voter participation increased and a progressive city council was replaced by a more conservative one. The new council discontinued the VBM initiative in Morgantown.
Members of the League of Women Voters testified before the Morgantown City Council to support the continuation of vote by mail in the city.
The city of Morgantown produced a brochure to explain vote by mail.