House vote paves way for automatic voter registration

CHARLESTON — After years of delays, automatic voter registration is closer to reality thanks to spending authority granted by the House of Delegates to Secretary of State Mac Warner.

The House voted 87-9 on Tuesday on Senate Bill 1015. The bill gives the Secretary of State’s Office the authority to spend $1.5 million for technology improvements for the state’s 55 county clerks to be able to process the expected deluge of voter registrations once the state Division of Motor Vehicles is able to start automatic voter registration at DMV locations across the state.

“During the 2019 regular legislative session, it became clear that the counties’ budgets could greatly suffer without upgrading to new technology in order to effectively implement the Automatic Voter Registration law,” Warner said in a statement Tuesday. “Upgrading the (Statewide Voter Registration System) now will provide our office enough time to develop the updated system in accordance with West Virginia laws, and will provide the county clerks sufficient time to learn the new functions before the new law goes into effect.”

The $1.5 million is not coming from state tax dollars, but instead from business and licensing fees generated by the Secretary of State’s Office.

On Tuesday, an attempt by House Democrats to lay SB 2015 over until today failed, wanting assurances that automatic voter registration would finally be implemented.

“Now they’re going to have the money, so what’s the excuse now,” asked Del. Andrew Robinson, D-Kanawha. “We keep pushing things back that we asked for four years ago.”

“The only thing this bill is doing is giving them the authority to spend the money that’s in their hands on the issue that (Robinson) has described that we want to solve,” said Del. Brandon Steele, R-Raleigh, responding to Robinson. “Why in the world would we not do it?”

During the 2019 regular session, the legislature passed Senate Bill 491 setting a new deadline for the DMV, the Secretary of State’s office, and county clerks to implement automatic voter registration by July 1, 2021. The West Virginia County Clerk’s Association announced the creation June 6 of a task force with the Secretary of State’s Office to implement automatic voter registration on their end.

“All involved in implementing the AVR system are committed to an accurate and reliable process for West Virginia residents to register to vote,” said Linda Huggins, president of the WV County Clerk’s Association. “The task force will allow us to work together to achieve that goal.”

This was the second delay since automatic voter registration passed the legislature in 2016. The program was supposed to be effective by July 1, 2017. A 2017 bill moved the effective date to July 1, 2019. Both the DMV and county clerks have raised concerns about being able to implement the program over the years.

House Bill 4013, passed in 2016, created both a voter identification program and automatic voter registration. State residents who obtain or renew their drivers’ license or photo I.D. card would be automatically registered to vote or have their voter registration updated unless they opt out.

County clerks have raised concerns about handling the expected increase in voter registration files. The DMV has had to make needed software and hardware upgrades to handle the registration process. Their previous system was losing voter registrations, resulting in some people not being registered when they tried to vote in 2018.

The contract with the DMV’s software vendor expired in December 2016 and they’ve been unwilling to expand the software to include the three additional categories needed to collect for automatic voter registration: marital and pre-marital names, telephone numbers and email addresses. The DMV will begin a contract with a new vendor starting in October.