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Election Update: Natalie Tennant calls for robust Vote-by-Mail program in W.Va. and pushes for November preparations to be made now

Former Secretary of State Oversaw the First Full Vote-by-Mail Elections in W.Va.

Release from Natalie Tennant Campaign:

CHARLESTON, W.Va.- Former Secretary of State and current candidate Natalie Tennant says West Virginia should be preparing for the November General Election even as the Primary Election is underway.

Natalie Tennant

            “It is tempting to wait and see how the expanded use of absentee voting during the primary election works before taking the next step, but that would put West Virginia behind the eight ball and deprive us several months of planning,” Tennant said.

            There is proof that full Vote-by-Mail works in West Virginia. In 2010, as Secretary of State, Tennant implemented a two-phase pilot project that allowed for Vote-by-Mail to be tested in West Virginia cities and towns. Morgantown and several smaller towns successfully used the process. Since then, Harrisville in Ritchie County has also used it during early voting and saved money in the process. Vote-by-Mail has been successful and used in West Virginia for nearly 10 years.

            “If we want to expand to full Vote-by-Mail and move away from Absentee Voting, we need to look at how the pilot project was used in the Morgantown City Election of 2011,” Tennant said. “While this portion of the pilot project law has expired, the rules and criteria for guidelines are still relevant today.”

            In this discussion, it is important to understand the difference between Absentee Voting by Mail, which is what current leadership has chosen to offer for the 2020 primary election, and a full Vote-by-Mail program.

Absentee Voting is when a voter requests a ballot from their county clerk. The ballot is sent to the voter, the voter casts the ballot and returns the ballot to be counted. This is what we use in West Virginia, and it requires the voter to provide an excuse to qualify for absentee voting. Vote-by-Mail is the process of sending every registered voter a ballot without a request. This saves time and money for local election officials and provides a convenient way for voters to participate.

            In the Vote-by-Mail pilot project, the City of Morgantown mailed out more than 16,000 ballots to registered voters. The number of voters who cast a ballot in the 2011 city election more than doubled that of the previous city election.

A local printshop was chosen as the vendor to print, sort and send the ballots. Included in the envelopes were the official ballot, a security envelope, a ballot return envelope, instructions for marking, signing and returning the ballot as well as other various notices.

Once voters received their ballots, they had nearly three weeks, including until 8 p.m. on election day, to return the ballots. They had a choice of how to return it, either by mailing it to the city clerk’s office, hand-delivering it to the city clerk or dropping it off at one of three secure locations around Morgantown.

While this is an example of how Vote-by-Mail would work in West Virginia, there are still steps that would need to be taken to adequately use it to its full potential.

  1. The legislature must provide authority for Vote-by-Mail to be used and for ballots to automatically be sent to registered voters.
    1. Several members of the House of Delegates, led by Monongalia County Delegate Evan Hansen, introduced Vote-by-Mail legislation last session which could be used as a model to pass a bill during a special session, which the Governor has already admitted may be necessary to hold.
    1. The rules written and used for the successful Vote-by-Mail Pilot Project in 2010 can be used for guidance.
  2. Review and adjust timelines for mailing and receiving ballots to provide consistency statewide.
  3. Review current process for address updates to ensure address lists are as accurate as possible.
    1. Implement Automated Voter Registration. This efficient method has been law in WV for four years but has yet to be implemented. It would help update voter rolls because it updates when a voter changes their address at the DMV.
  4. Streamline the signature verification process and ensure that bi-partisan teams make the final decision.
    1. This may also require an assessment of the image quality of signatures in the Statewide Voter Registration System (SVRS).
    1. There are examples of guidelines and best practices available from other states.
  5. Vote-by-Mail should provide for self-sealing envelopes and prepaid postage for voters to send back the ballot.
  6. Provide ballot drop boxes in secure and accessible locations.
  7. Utilize scanning, sorting and ballot extraction equipment for efficient and secure processing of ballots.
  8. Maintain in-person voting options consistent with public health needs.
    1. Some voters will still need the assistance of in-person voting.
  9. Provide robust education program to inform voters of the new process and requirements.

“There is no magic wand that can be used to make all of this happen. During my eight years as Secretary of State and several years as a national voting rights expert, I have found that in election administration there is not one process that is the panacea for making elections accessible, fair and safe,” Tennant said.

 “That’s why there should be various opportunities to register to vote, multiple ways to cast a ballot and cutting-edge post-election audits. All of this takes courage, resources, and cooperation.”

As part of the stimulus bill that was passed by Congress, $400 million was allocated for elections across the country, but experts worry that is not enough. It is estimated that upwards of $2 billion is needed to meet the needs of the 2020 election. The U.S. House and Senate are considering the “Resilient Elections During Quarantines and Natural Disasters Act of 2020” that would assist in the general election, which would be the help our county clerks need and deserve.

One thing is for certain, our democracy demands we be forward thinkers and embrace reforms that ensure the safety of voters and election workers while protecting the security, accessibility and integrity of our elections.

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