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Report shines light on West Virginia’s forgotten voters, need to improve voter access

West Virginia lawmakers should level playing field for rural voters

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CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Rural West Virginians, whose voting age population traditionally turns out in lower numbers than their urban counterparts, could benefit from automatic voter registration and expanded voter access, according to a new report by the nonpartisan election policy group Secure Democracy USA

The report, West Virginia’s Forgotten Voters: Rural Voters Need Accessible Voting Methods and Automatic Voter Registration, found that nearly half of voters (47.9%) living in West Virginia rural counties voted by mail or voted early in-person in the 2020 election.“With the West Virginia legislature back in session, it is important for lawmakers to keep in mind that rural voters depend on voting access laws,” said Diego Echeverri, director of advocacy for Secure Democracy. “West Virginia’s Senate passed sweeping legislation in 2021 that would do more harm to rural voters, including limiting their early voting options and threatening cancellation of voter registration for failing to vote in a midterm election. West Virginia lawmakers should instead embrace policies that improve trust in our elections and expand access to the ballot box for all voters, including rural voters.”The Secure Democracy report provides a glimpse into the demographics and voting preferences of West Virginia’s rural counties, and recommends policies to further expand access to all voters, including extending early voting, eliminating excuse-based mail voting, give mail voters due process to cure problems with their ballots, and eliminating non-voting as a reason to purge a voter.Highlights of the Secure Democracy report include:

  • Demographics of West Virginia rural voters: 97.1% are white; 27% are over the age of 65; 26% have a disability;  Republicans received nearly 77% of the vote in rural counties in 2020.
  • Rural West Virginia voters increasingly rely on flexibility in casting their ballots: In West Virginia in 2020, 47.9% of votes in rural counties were cast before Election Day. In some rural counties, pre-Election Day voting was even more popular: 58% of rural Upshur County voted before Election Day in 2020, along with 57% of voters in Jackson and Summers Counties. Overall in 23 of 26 rural counties, at least 40% of voters voted before Election Day.
  • Mail voting gains in popularity: In 2020, rural counties saw mail voting rates between 6% and 22% of votes, a significant increase from 2016 across all counties. In 17 of 26 rural counties, 15% or more of all votes were cast by mail.
  • 2021 bills introduced in the West Virginia Senate would restrict rural voters’ freedom to vote: Legislation introduced last year in the West Virginia Senate would reduce the number of in-person, early voting days; create unnecessarily early absentee ballot application deadlines; and threaten voters with cancellation of their registration for failure to vote in a single mid-term election. If re-introduced this year, those provisions would have an adverse effect on rural voters’ ability to cast their ballot.

Secure Democracy urges West Virginia lawmakers to level the playing field for rural voters by prioritizing the following policies next legislative session:

  • Extend the early voting period through the day before Election Day. Early in-person voting was utilized by approximately one-third of rural voters in 2016 and 2020. Historically, the days closest to Election Day are the most popular days. Adding additional days adjacent to these popular days will create more access. 
  • Extend the option to vote by mail. In rural counties, utilization of mail voting increased six-fold from 2016, when strict excuses were required for mail voting, to 2020, when mail voting was more widely available because of the inclusion of COVID-19 concerns as an excuse. 
  • Give mail voters due process via notice and an opportunity to cure problems with mailed ballots. In 2016, 1.3% of all mailed ballots were rejected. Under existing law, election officials do not provide voters notice and an opportunity to cure minor defects with their mail ballots. Often, senior voters and voters with disabilities are disproportionately affected by ballot rejection due to the mistranscription of information or signatures that change over time. 29 states provide voters notice and cure opportunities for mail ballot issues, including  Texas, Indiana, and North Dakota, all of whom enacted cure provisions in 2021. 
  • Provide voters convenient, secure locations to return their ballots in person. West Virginia currently does not allow voters to return their ballots to any location other than a clerk’s office. For rural voters living in remote areas with sporadic mail service, the lack of a convenient, secure location to return their mail ballots can require a long trip to a clerk’s office many miles away to return their ballots. 42 states provide voters some alternative drop-off locations for mail ballots. 
  • Maintain the current mail ballot application deadline. Axing the final five days current law allows voters to apply for mail ballots could eliminate the ability of up to one in eight applicants who typically apply in those final days. Last-minute issues with work, family, or health can cause a voter who otherwise planned to vote in-person to need the ability to cast a mail ballot.  
  • Eliminate non-voting as a reason to purge a voter. Requiring voters to vote every two years before being subject to purge could affect one-third of voters in many of the state’s most rural counties. If non-voting continues to be a basis, using the current four-year period would be less disruptive to rural voters. 

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