By Autumn Shelton, West Virginia Press News Sharing
CHARLESTON, W.Va. – Casting your ballot for the best candidate is normally the biggest question for a voter during an election.
However, during May’s primary election in West Virginia, some voters … and no one is certain how many … faced another question: Where do I cast my ballot?
Following the 2020 Census, West Virginia addressed redistricting, which changed voting maps and voting precincts for many residents. Among other issues, the redistricting effort involved the creation of 100 single-member State Delegate districts and new State Senate districts in nine counties.
Unfortunately, many voters were not informed their precincts had changed and some showed up at the wrong polling location on election day.
That confusion has prompted two new questions:
First, how many voters went to a precinct expecting to cast their vote, but were turned away because they were at the wrong location?
And second, how many of those voters, after being turned away, became frustrated and decided to not vote at all?
While there is no evidence a large number of people didn’t vote because of precinct confusion, the last question is very important because in an election where numerous races were determined by less than 20 votes, every vote was critical.
According to information available on the Secretary of State’s website:
- Delegate District 36 in McDowell County saw GOP candidate Anita Hall defeat Tom Acosta by one vote.
- Delegate District 76 in Marion County saw GOP candidate Jon Dodds defeat Toby Heaney by five votes.
- Delegate District 28 in Wayne County saw GOP candidate Mark Ross defeat incumbent Del. Josh Booth by nine votes.
- Delegate District 11 in Wood County saw GOP candidate Bob Fehrenbacher defeat incumbent Del. Roger Conley by 10 votes.
No recount or canvass can determine how many voters, when told they had to travel to another precinct, just went home and didn’t vote. Those disenfranchised voters might have changed election outcomes in West Virginia.
It’s a fact that voter turnout in West Virginia was just 22.92%, with 260,274 ballots cast of 1,135,601 potential voters.
Reports of voter precinct confusion have surfaced in counties around the state, but there is no official tracking to determine the extent of the problem.
Michael Queen, deputy chief of staff for West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner, said no official statewide data exists to determine how many voters were told to go to another polling location and no statewide data exists to determine how many never cast a vote after being directed to their correct location.
Queen explained that the Secretary of State’s office anticipated some voters would arrive at the wrong polling location, especially since data from the 2020 Census arrived eight months later than usual and redistricting efforts were so extensive.
To combat this issue, the Secretary of State’s office began a media campaign directing voters to GoVoteWV.com, designed to help voters find answers to their election related questions, including polling location.
“There were 900 different ballot types this past primary election,” Queen noted, but the “biggest concern was that a voter would show up and be in the wrong precinct.”
Some voters did show up at the wrong precinct. The West Virginia Press Association received reports from poll workers and voters about the issue in some counties.
Work to gather reports from all counties is ongoing. Voters and poll workers who experienced the issue … voters arriving at the wrong precinct … are asked to email the West Virginia Press Association at [email protected].
In one precinct in Greenbrier County, two poll workers stated that between 30-35 people were asked to go to a different location when they arrived to vote. Each poll worker expressed concern that notices did not get to every voter. The majority of those voters had a rural route physical address. Those poll workers were able to contact the county clerk and redirect voters to the correct location. Most of the voters stated they would travel to the next location.
In a May 20 report in The Register-Herald of Beckley, Raleigh County Chief Elections Officer Tammy Richardson said her office mailed 45-46,000 polling location updates to voters, but 10,000 were returned as undeliverable.
Another report, published by MetroNews on May 10, stated that in Berkeley County, County Clerk Elaine Mauck and her staff mailed 77,000 polling location notifications to voters, but as many as 10,000 of those were returned as undeliverable. This caused many voters to contact her office to ask where they were supposed to vote.
Mauck was quoted as saying “that’s caused some confusion on election day.”
In that May 20 report in The Register-Herald, Raleigh County resident Scott Lancianese, who has limited mobility following a stroke, said he never received a notice that his polling location had changed. When he arrived at what he thought was his correct polling location, he was offered a provisional ballot. Yet, he was concerned the ballot “would not count on election night.”
Lancianese was quoted “I was so aggravated after we left the first place, I told my wife that I didn’t even feel like voting.”
Ultimately, he did cast his vote at his correct location, the article states.
While not automatically mentioned when voters arrived at the polling location, Queen stated that poll workers were trained to offer a provisional ballot to voters who couldn’t travel to their new polling location for several reasons, including disability, lack of transportation or the need to go to work.
The provisional ballot could, however, be rejected if the ballot cast was significantly different from the one in the voter’s correct polling location. This led to the concern by some voters, who were offered a provisional ballot, that their vote may not count, according to poll workers in one county.
What caused this many notifications to be returned as undeliverable?
Queen noted the primary tool used for the new statewide voter registration system was the state 911 mapping system.
“The 911 address is to bring you two things – to make sure you get emergency services delivered to your house, and to determine which district you live in for purposes of voting. So, we use 911 mapping and GIS [Geographic Information System mapping] data from the state. Were there some concerns and problems? Yes, but most of them had been corrected before the election.”
He added that because of redistricting, municipalities “wanted to make sure their districts would stay within the same Delegate district.”
“The cities still wanted people in the city, but the 911 mapping pushed some of those folks on the fringes of the city, outside of the city. So, they all had to be brought back in.”
“It wasn’t a big issue, but it was in Marion and Hampshire [counties] where the mapping wasn’t as specific as it needed to be.”
As for the number of provisional ballots cast and rejected statewide, Queen said the data must be obtained from individual county clerk’s offices.
“We will encourage county clerks to enter provisional voting information in the statewide system by Sept. 7, 2022,” Queen noted. “However, they are not required by law to enter provisional ballot information. That is an optional issue for county clerks and the county’s Board of Canvassers.”
Marion County Clerk Julie Kincaid stated that of the 62 provisional ballots cast in her county, 31 were rejected. Additionally, she stated that only 85 of the 17,500 mailed polling location updates, sent out two weeks before the election, were returned as undeliverable. In most cases, she explained, this is caused by voters not regularly updating their address.
“With the use of ePollbooks in each location, the poll worker could look up the proper place for the voter,” Kincaid continued. “Most voters happily went on to their correct polling places. I believe this resulted in fewer provisional ballots than we expected.”
She added that if one thing could help notify voters of their new polling locations in the future, electronic communication may be the answer.
“Living in the digital age, it seems it would be so much simpler to send voters an email or even a mass text.”
“I am pleased to say, the primary election went quite well in Marion County,” Kincaid said. “Despite challenges and hurdles (ie: late Census data, redistricting), we were still able to work together and execute a clean, efficient, and accurate election.”
As of June 2, Queen said that 5,715 absentee ballots were cast statewide. There were 62,283 early votes. A total of 260,274 votes were cast – a 22.92% statewide turnout. The Secretary of State’s office anticipated that official election result documentation would be available the week of June 6.
“I think we have done a pretty good job statewide to say ‘Pay close attention. Your polling location may have changed, be flexible with us, be flexible with the poll workers, be patient.’”
“We still have work to do,” Queen concluded. “This was the first election that we had to show us where the warts are. That’s why we repeatedly encouraged poll workers and clerks to be patient. So certainly, there were concerns and hotspots. We will start working on those. Ballots go out in September [for the general election]. We have a lot of work to do. But it’s going to be done systematically until we get it right, and we will get it right.”
The questions, though, remain: How many times in this election with many close races did voters, after being turned away, decide not to vote, and could the election results have been different?