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Voting accessibility remains campaign issue in W.Va. Secretary of State race

By Lexi Browning

West Virginia Press Association

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — With only a few weeks until the general election, candidates are picking up the pace on the campaign trail, including contenders for the West Virginia Secretary of State race: incumbent Secretary of State Mac Warner and former Secretary of State Natalie Tennant. 

As the state deals with COVID-19 and its impact on the voting process, absentee ballot accessibility has remained a key campaign issue as Tennant questions Warner’s approach.

Before this year’s primary election, the Secretary of State’s Office mailed absentee ballot applications to registered voters, receiving 262,441 applications in return. Prior to the pandemic, approximately 6,700 West Virginians voted absentee in the 2016 primary, the Secretary of State’s Office reported in a press release

Voters will not receive absentee ballot applications in the general election, however. Ahead of the general election, the Secretary of State’s Office debuted an online portal through which voters could apply for absentee ballots for the general election. 

Accessibility Concerns, Portal :

In a September virtual debate hosted by West Virginia Public Broadcasting, Tennant addressed concerns about Warner’s absentee ballot accessibility for rural populations, as well as delays with the automatic voter registration Tennant said she enacted while in office. 

Following the debate, Tennant discussed some of her key concerns with the upcoming election, voting accessibility and initiatives passed during the end of her tenure that have not yet been implemented by the office. 

In a previous interview with the West Virginia Press Association, Warner cited county clerks’ opposition to mailing applications due to the increased workload as a primary reason for switching to the online portal from mailing. 

Tennant questions Warner’s decision to change the process “mid-stream” by removing the automatic absentee application mailings.

Tennant said she has spoken with voters who expected to receive their applications through the mail for the general election. 

“We were all in agreement that folks use the absentee application when we had a quarter of a million West Virginians use it,” Tennant said. “But then what he did was pull the rug out from underneath them.”

Warner countered that the applications were mailed out as a notification of the primary election date change and to inform voters they were now eligible to vote absentee when citing COVID-19 as a reason for requesting the ballot. 

“COVID is worse now in West Virginia than it was in the primary,” Tennant said. “There are more cases, there are more deaths. What happened to your moral obligation? He’s making it more difficult.”

Warner, who has spoken nationally on West Virginia’s voter security, said the portal is another option and adds to accessibility.

“28,000 people have already figured out how to use the portal, and another 30,000 requested paper applications,” Warner said. “It shows that both systems are working. Simply because one county clerk and then a county commission have decided to still send out applications, that’s a county’s choice… When 53 other counties are promoting the portal, and even the ones that are, both Lincoln County and Ohio County, they still want the electronic portal to work as well.” 

Ohio and Lincoln counties, Tennant said, decided to send out applications to their registered voters to stay consistent and avoid any confusion. 

Tennant, who worked as a national voting rights expert with the Brennan Center for several years, said not offering an automatically mailed absentee ballot application before the general election is a disservice to voters. 

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