More than 50,000 have already applied for absentee ballots in West Virginia

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By Lexi Browning, West Virginia Press Association

Less than two months out from the 2020 presidential election, more than 50,000 West Virginians have already applied for absentee ballots, the West Virginia Secretary of State’s office reports.

In West Virginia, voters can cite concerns about the ongoing coronavirus pandemic as the reason for requesting an absentee ballot.

The Secretary of State’s office is working to inform voters about the absentee voting process through an online public education campaign and by phone, said Mike Queen, deputy chief of staff and director of communications for Secretary Mac Warner.

It’s an effort to educate and counter some of the mixed messages West Virginians have received about the security and credibility of mail-in voting from federal officials, Queen explained.

“Secretary Warner, in the primary election, was trying to get folks used to understanding how to vote by absentee ballot,” Queen said. “We had 61 telephone town halls prior to the election just to try to make people understand that you still can vote safely by absentee. It comes with concerns, but not voting because you didn’t have confidence in the absentee ballot process was not an option for Secretary Warner and our team.”

In this year’s primary election, 262,441 West Virginians applied for absentee ballots, a significant increase from the estimated 6,700 who voted absentee in the 2016 presidential primary.

Queen said this year’s primary election brought in nearly 40 times more absentee ballots than the state has received in any other election.

“Seven thousand statewide is the most we’ve ever had in West Virginia to vote by absentee, and then going to 224,720, to be exact, that were returned, that’s 39 times what we’re used to in the middle of a pandemic with still almost a flawless election.”

While absentee ballot applications were mailed automatically for this year’s primary, registered voters must request absentee ballots before the 2020 general election. Secretary Warner said the decision was influenced by a number of factors, including input from county clerks.

“In the After Action Report, we took about a month to talk to clerks after the primary, and the clerks asked that we specifically not send out the applications,” Warner said. “The reasons they cited were legibility issues and omissions on the paper applications, as well as the data transfer and the labor that it takes to transfer the data from the piece of paper into the statewide voter registration system.”

In response to county clerks’ concerns about the volume of absentee ballots, the Secretary of State’s Office launched a web page where voters can request an absentee ballot online. The state’s online absentee ballot request portal is hosted by Democracy Live, an electronic cloud-based voting app based out of Washington, that has previously been used for online ballot delivery for military personnel overseas and voters with disabilities.

Chuck Flannery, deputy secretary and chief of staff for Secretary Mac Warner, said the online portal countered issues with errors on paper “that could disenfranchise voters.” In West Virginia, its impact is “twofold,” he added, with both online ballot delivery and the absentee request portal.

“Democracy Live is really the only business that now has a product that can deliver to us that sheet of paper created electronically, affixed the signature in the own handwriting of the voter and delivered back to the county clerk without using the post office,” Flannery said. “There’s no other business that’s done this for this purpose until now.”

The secretary and his staff said the usage of the Democracy Live portal has helped streamline the application process. So far, the Secretary of State’s staff reported receiving encouraging feedback from clerks about the online application system. Warner said that out of the 50,000 people who have requested an absentee ballot for the general election so far, about half have requested their ballot through the online portal, and the other half have requested their ballot by paper.

“This capability, West Virginia is enjoying this for the first time in the nation’s history,” Warner said. “You always hear about West Virginia being last, here’s something where West Virginia’s leading the nation. This system is working and any of the technical glitches are being revealed by clerks during their training or initial use of it and are being handled very quickly. The system is working and it’s working fabulously well.”

Based on the portal’s efficiency, Warner said he hopes Democracy Live will be used “more and more” going forward.

“Everyone who uses the electronic portal, it saves the issues of postage, the time, the impact on the post office and so forth,” Warner said. “This is a way of easing those problems at the same time and easing the workload on county clerks.”

David Tackett, chief information officer for the Secretary of State’s office, added that the application process is strongly encrypted by a federal grant certified platform and has multiple security barriers put in place to prevent voters from applying for ballots that aren’t theirs.

“That’s probably the biggest challenge ahead of someone who wants to do something nefarious,” Tackett said. “There’s also capturing the digital signature during the application process, which is just like a paper form — it will be evaluated against the signature on file for the voter.”

A recent analysis compiled by The Washington Post in June concluded that, of a sample of nearly 15 million voters in three universal mail-in ballot states, just 0.0025 percent of votes were fraudulent

Warner said he has personally requested a mail-in ballot to watch how the system works.

County clerks will begin mailing out requested absentee ballots on Sept. 18, and absentee ballots can be returned by mail if postmarked by Election Day. Absentee ballots may also be returned in-person to the county clerk’s office until Nov. 2, one day before the general election, the Secretary of State’s election calendar states.

The last day to apply for an absentee ballot in West Virginia is Oct. 28, but Warner said he encouraged those voting by mail to return their ballots as quickly as possible to counter any possible delays in delivery. Absentee ballot applications received after Oct. 28 cannot be accepted.

Registered voters can request their absentee ballots on the Secretary of State’s website through the application portal or by downloading the application form directly from the website to mail, fax or deliver in-person to their county clerks. Residents must be registered by Oct. 13 to participate in the general election.

Once absentee applications requests have been submitted online, Tackett said applicants will receive notification via email confirming the receipt. Voters can also track the status of their absentee ballot on the website.

“It also includes when the request was received, when the ballot was mailed and when the ballot was returned,” Tackett said. “When you’ve got digital tools online, more people can track it, and it’ll save some phone calls both to our office and the county. That’s all included on www.govotewv.com.”

When absentee ballot requests are received, Warner said, clerks will collect them, print the labels and mail them out. This also allows ballots to be sent to a different mailing address than the voter’s registered address, he added, which can assist voters attending college away from home or for voters in assisted care facilities.

“Within 24 hours of hitting send,” clerks will have access to the information, he said.

“That’s why we went with the electronic portal so that when the voter submits that information, one, it will be legible, and two, it won’t omit things if they don’t fill out that key, required field just like you do when you’re ordering something,” Warner said. “If you don’t put in the security code on a credit card, it won’t accept it — you have to fill that. The same goes for the online portal. You have to supply the requisite amount of information so that the clerks will have complete data when they receive that.”

Warner said he encouraged voters to choose the method that best “fits their lifestyle or situation.”

“If somebody has a medical condition, then yes, I encourage them to use the absentee voting process, which is by mail, but if somebody can vote in person, that is the golden standard,” Warner said.  “The best way to vote is to vote in person either during early voting, which is Oct. 21-31, or on Election Day, Nov. 3. The reason I say that is that you’re there in person, you can see the ballot and you put it in the box yourself. You know it’s going to be counted. You’re not putting it in a mailbox wondering whether it’s going to be picked up in time, lost in route, so forth. You put it in the ballot box or watch the poll worker do it for you. If you have any questions, the questions can be answered on the spot.”

Using technology such as the electronic marking devices at polling places could “prevent some of that human error,” Warner added, citing an instance in the primary where Harrison County had a large number of overvotes in one race.

“An overvote is, say there’s a House of Delegates race, and it says ‘Vote for Two [Candidates]’ and somebody’s sitting at their kitchen table with a pencil and votes for three, you can fill in a third dot if you want, but it invalidates your vote in that race,” Warner said. “Over 1,000 times that happened in one county. If you were in person at a polling location, using an electronic marking device, in most situations, that electronic marking device will not allow you to vote for a third. If you try to vote for a third, it’ll send up a red flag that says, ‘You can only vote for two.’”

“I like the mail,” Warner said. “The mail works, in their own words, 96 percent of the time, they deliver on time and in a proper time schedule. But I make the example that if you won the multi-million-dollar lottery, would you trust putting that lottery ticket in the mail to claim your prize? Or would you walk it down yourself? I’d say 9/10 would not trust the mail in that situation.”

Though Warner encourages voters to vote in person if they can, he said voters should take advantage of voting by absentee ballot if they have health or other concerns that prevent them from making it to the polls.

“If you have concerns with the mail at all, if you’re waiting to make that last minute decision, I would say don’t risk the mail,” Warner said. “If you get to Oct. 28 and haven’t decided which way you’re going to vote, at that point, go ahead and vote in person if at all possible. If you have any concern about COVID-19 at all, use that opportunity to do an absentee ballot. If you want to vote and have this election behind you, the post office will not be a concern to you; fraud will not be a concern to you.”

For questions pertaining to the elections or deadlines, Warner recommended contacting county clerks instead of relying on Facebook or Twitter. Queen echoed Warner’s recommendations, noting that absentee voters should carefully read the instructions on the ballots to prevent invalidation of their votes.

According to West Virginia Code, fraudulent voting or tampering with votes is a felony that will result in one to 10 years in a state correctional facility. Warner also noted that signing election documents on behalf of a spouse or relative is also a felony.

Suspicious voting activity can be reported to the fraud hotline at 877-FRAUD-WV.