By Jonathan Adler
West Virginia Association of Counties
2020 has collectively been the most challenging year of our lives. COVID-19 has curtailed our daily routine as never before, from going to work each day (IF we did not lose our job), to having family gatherings, attending sporting events, fairs & festivals, and church. And it’s an election year in America, too, and our most important: a presidential election year. This November in West Virginia, we will also vote for a governor, a United States Senator, our representatives to Congress and our state legislature, state constitutional officials, and the county courthouse, too.
And voting, likewise, has been impacted by COVID. 2020 saw a huge increase in the use of absentee ballots and early voting in attempts to stay away and stay safe from the virus. In the primary, every voter in West Virginia was sent applications for absentee ballots to allow for safe voting and public health. For the general election, it was determined people could ask for applications again, but they were not automatically sent by County Clerks as was done in the primary election. So far, the numbers are huge: Calhoun County reports almost 4-times more absentee ballots in 2020 than 2016. Marion County too has a 97% increase.
As of this writing approximately 30 million people have voted across the nation by “early voting” at official polling locations, or by “mail-in voting.”. In West Virginia, early voting runs from Wednesday, Oct. 21 to Saturday, Oct. 31. The last day to register for an absentee ballot in West Virginia is Oct. 28. In addition to all the problems related with COVID, some folks are irresponsibly raising the specter of voter fraud and urge people to become “poll watchers.” Such accusations have failed to be proven, as our FBI cites no evidence of fraud whatsoever.
However, these “poll watchers” could, in fact, be engaged in “voter intimidation,” which is against the law. Title 18 of the United States code, Chapter 29 Section 594, specifically cites the law against voter intimidation: Whoever intimidates, threatens, coerces, or attempts to intimidate, threaten, or coerce, any other person for the purpose of interfering with the right of such other person to vote or to vote as he may choose… to vote for, any candidate for the office of President, Vice President… Member of the Senate, Member of the House of Representatives…at any election held solely or in part for the purpose of electing such candidate, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than one year, or both.”
West Virginia itself has strict laws that do not permit “poll watching.” Under Chapter 3, Article 9 of the state code, no one can enter “an election room” that is not actively present to vote, or “be within 100 feet of the outside entrance to the building housing the polling place.” If so, they can be fined anywhere from $50 to $500, “or confined in the county jail for not more than 30 days.”
West Virginia has enjoyed a long, successful history of free and safe elections. Chalk that up to our fifty-five County Clerks across West Virginia, and their close work with the Secretary of State to ensure your right to vote. Elections are the very essence of our democracy, and West Virginia County Clerks and their staff are constantly tasked with making sure elections are conducted in the very best manner possible, from researching and installing new voting technology; maintaining accurate voter registration rolls; or hiring, training, and fielding enough poll workers to ensure precincts are ready for you to vote. And their response to COVID-19 again exemplifies their excellent public service. Their work has been so outstanding that we take for granted our right to vote and just how easy it is.
It is exactly because of County Courthouse officials’ long experience and dedication to running our elections that West Virginians need not fear our vote will not be counted. We do not and never have needed “poll watchers.” Such ideas are anti-democratic and damaging to a long and proud American tradition – our foundation itself. But because these false allegations are raised in other parts of the country, our County Clerks as well as our Sheriffs will now need to also prepare for possible unlawful acts at the polls, on top of all the safety measures against the virus.
Yes, 2020 has been a challenging year. But it should not be a challenge to vote. Know that your vote will be counted, as it always has before.
— Jonathan Adler is the Executive Director for the West Virginia Association of Counties.