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Warner-Tennant rematch for West Virginia Secretary of State

PARKERSBURG — With the office’s duties overseeing elections in the spotlight like never before, West Virginia’s last two Secretaries of State are each seeking another four years in office.

The secretary’s role as West Virginia’s chief elections officer has been highlighted as citizens and officials work to determine the safest and most effective ways to vote during the COVID-19 pandemic. But the office also registers corporations and limited liability companies in the state, issues licenses to a variety of professionals as well as charities and acts as the official record-keeper of state government.

Republican Mac Warner unseated two-term incumbent Democrat Natalie Tennant in the 2016 election by nearly 12,000 votes. Now, he’s asking voters for another four years to continue initiatives to bolster the state’s services for voters and businesses.

Tennant, meanwhile, is arguing the office needs to get back on the track she established from 2009 to 2017.

* WARNER

Warner said his 23 years experience as a U.S. Army veteran and with the State Department prepared him to serve as the “head of an organization where issues come at you from all angles.”

While the state usually has about 7,000 people vote absentee, 224,000 took advantage of the process in this year’s primary, due to concerns over COVID-19.

President Donald Trump has repeatedly questioned the security of voting by mail, but Warner said West Virginia’s system is secure because ballots are not sent out unless they have been requested.

Warner said he trusts the U.S. Postal Service, but “I will always advocate for in-person voting, if at all possible, in a precinct, on Election Day.” However, he acknowledged that may not be the best option for some people this year.

Absentee ballot applications were mailed to all registered voters for the primary. Warner decided against that approach for the general election, based on county clerks saying it created an “overwhelming amount of work.”

“We’re listening to the clerks when they say don’t send out the pieces of paper, but we are giving another option to the voters,” he said, noting people can request absentee ballots at GoVoteWV.com. “Within 24 hours, those people are getting sent their absentee ballot.”

Warner said he wants to finish cleaning up the voter rolls, with about 195,000 names purged and approximately 205,000 added. He estimates there are another 200,000 inactive voters that need to be removed.

Warner expects the state to initiate automatic voter registration in the spring, allowing people to be added to the voter rolls when they obtain or renew a driver’s license or photo I.D. at the Department of Motor Vehicles. The practice was approved by the Legislature with an initial deadline of 2017, but Warner said it has been delayed because of “technological infrastructure” issues, including a need to update the computer systems for the Secretary of State’s office and the DMV.

“The Legislature’s passed it, we’re going to implement it; but we’re going to do it right,” he said.

Warner described establishing a physical location for the Secretary of State and the Tax, Workforce and Labor departments to assist existing and prospective business owners as his “proudest achievement.” But setting up a planned one-stop online portal for the same agencies is not “as easy as just flipping it on,” he said. The other departments have contracts with vendors that must expire before they can be brought online.

“We’re all moving in the same direction,” Warner said.

The office recently opened the Electronic Registration and Licensing System, which allows marriage celebrants, notaries and charities to register 24 hours a day, seven days a week, Warner said

“Already over 50 percent of the notaries that are renewing are doing it online,” he said.

Warner said he’s increased the number of fraud investigators in the office while reducing overall staffing by 15 percent to be more efficient.

Tennant has called the dismissal of 15 employees at the start of Warner’s term improper and politically motivated. Although the state’s insurer settled lawsuits over the firings, Warner said there was nothing illegal about not retaining at-will employees “that did not fit my leadership style.

“Not at any time did I ever ask anyone their politics,” he said.

* TENNANT

A former TV news reporter and business owner, Tennant said she’s kept involved in election issues even after leaving office. Working with the Brennan Center for Justice, which is affiliated with the New York University School of Law, Tennant has advocated before other state legislatures on topics such as automatic voter registration.

During the campaign, she’s weighed in on the circumstances surrounding this year’s election, criticizing Warner for not again mailing absentee ballot applications.

“We’re just in a unique time in our life, too, with people questioning the election,” Tennant said.

While Warner has said West Virginia’s absentee voting process is safe, Tennant said he’s sent mixed messages by echoing some of Trump’s concerns about mail-in voting.

Tennant said her accomplishments in the arena of voting included establishing online voter registration and leading the efforts for the state to join the Electronic Registration Information Center, a national consortium that helps election officials improve registration and voter list maintenance.

When reports surfaced of attempted Russian interference in the 2016 election, Tennant said, she brought in the West Virginia National Guard to assist and worked with the state and federal Homeland Security departments to ensure its integrity.

Tennant said she collaborated with Democrats and Republicans to make West Virginia the third state in the country to adopt automatic voter registration.

“He’s (Warner) taken us backwards by not implementing that,” she said.

Tennant said the state should be looking at the next advancements, such as considering ranked choice voting. Under that system, voters rank candidates in order of preference. If no one receives 50 percent of the first-choice votes, the one with the lowest total is eliminated and those voters’ second choices receive their votes.

“It’s going to come around,” Tennant said. “The citizens are going to push for it.”

Tennant is also frustrated that the one-stop online portal has not been implemented.

“I laid the blueprint out for him to have it ready to go,” she said.

Tennant said money has been used improperly to set up the physical one-stop location instead of the online component.

“And he calls it his crowning achievement, but it’s not right,” she said.

Another bipartisan achievement Tennant cited was the waiver of startup fees for veteran business owners and waiving four years of annual reports. That’s something she would like to extend to military spouses.

“Military spouses experience high unemployment rates,” she said, noting people may be hesitant to hire them in case their spouses get transferred. Starting their own business gives them a job option they can take with them, Tennant said.

Tennant said she wants to bring back an online chat feature for the office’s website.

“I’m known as an innovator, and I streamlined the office, automated it and saved businesses money,” she said.

Evan Bevins can be reached at ebevins@newsandsentinel.com.

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