FAIRMONT — In a typical West Virginia statewide election, fewer than 7,000 absentee ballots are cast. That’s about 2% of all ballots.
But the COVID-19 era is hardly typical of anything.
During the June 9 statewide primary election, which was delayed a month because of the pandemic, the number of absentee ballots counted by county clerks increased to a staggering total of 224,720.
That’s 39 times greater than ever before.
As the state moves toward the general election on Nov. 3, West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner said another barrage of requests for absentee ballots has already begun.
In Marion County, with 40,528 registered voters, more than 2,141 individuals have requested absentee ballots during the past six weeks. Statewide, there have been 68,457 verified applications for absentee ballots to date.
“For the primary election, we had more than 224,000 people who voted absentee. So, the fact we have received nearly 70,000 requests already, we’re probably already ahead of where we were for the primary,” said Warner.
In meeting with county clerks in the region this week, though, Warner said they don’t anticipate as many absentee voters as in the primary, mostly because citizens have adapted to and are more comfortable with COVID-19 pandemic protocols by now.
“Right now, people are used to wearing masks out to Walmart and Lowe’s and so forth, so the county clerks think people will be more comfortable going to the polling places than they were in June,” Warner said. “The clerks felt there are going to be a lot of people voting absentee, but maybe not quite as big a percentage as we had in the primary.”
The first round of general election absentee ballots will be mailed tomorrow, Sept. 18. The Secretary of State’s office recommends voters to expect absentee ballots to begin arriving in mailboxes the next Monday.
October 28 is the deadline to request an absentee ballot, but Warner recommends interested voters act much sooner.
“That’s a little late, but that’s what the law says. If people wait until Oct. 28 to request it, the ballot will still have to be sent to them and they’ll have to complete it and send it back — and it may not get back in time. So, absentee voters should do so as quickly as possible,” Warner said.
To be counted, an absentee ballot must be postmarked by Election Day on Nov. 3. But again, the Secretary of State recommends voters act swiftly.
“I would highly encourage people to vote early. Even the postal service sent out cards to everybody in the United States recommending they request an absentee ballot at least 15 days out and return the ballot by mail at least seven days out from the election,” Warner said. “The problem is, that’s not consistent with West Virginia law, which says you can send in your ballot all the way up to Election Day and it must still be counted.”
For persons interested in voting absentee, there are two ways to secure a ballot — go online to GoVoteWV.com or call your county clerk’s office.
The new online portal was employed for the first time during the June primary and it proved quite popular. A total of 31,545 state voters secured absentee ballots through online requests, while 36,912 votes secure their ballots in the traditional method.
Warner said the process for obtaining an absentee ballot is not only easy, but also more accurate than the traditional method.
“As soon as you get to GoVoteWV.com, you’ll see a little hand that says ‘Request a 2020 General Election Absentee Ballot.’ When you click on that, it leads to an electronic submission of a request. What that does is not only eliminate human error — such as a misspelling, or a 4 that looks like a 9 that would have the ballot sent to the wrong address, or forgetting to submit something — but it also won’t let you submit until you complete all the required fields,” Warner said.
Requests for absentee ballots may also be mailed, faxed, or emailed.
Upon submission, the absentee ballot request is sent to the Secretary of State’s office, as well as the county clerk where the voter lives. Within 24 hours, the ballot is mailed to the voter.
“The absentee voting process went off without a hitch during the primary election,” said Michael L. Queen, who serves as deputy chief of staff for the Secretary of State’s office.
All absentee ballots are tracked online and a ballot’s migration through the process may be viewed by voters in real-time. Voters may see when their ballot request was made, when it was mailed out by the county clerk’s office, and when a completed and returned ballot from the voter was received by the county clerk.
West Virginia is one of 16 states that requires citizens have a valid excuse in order to vote absentee.
“One of the reasons for granting absentee voting is illness, injury, medical condition, or confinement. That’s the block most people will check because of COVID-19,” Warner said. “But other reasons might be incarceration, detention, employment that prevents them from voting during polling hours, personal business or travel that takes someone out of state during the election, or attending college out of state. There are a lot of different reasons you can request an absentee ballot.”
Absentee voting aside, Queen said he expects many state residents to cast their first general election votes in November, as the Secretary of State’s office has made recruiting young and new voters a priority.
“More than 201,000 new voters in West Virginia have been registered during the past 43 months. That’s unheard of in a state the size of West Virginia. And 58,016 of them were high school students age 18,” he said.