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House Democratic leaders unveil sweeping election reform bill

Del. John Doyle, center, gives details about a new election reform bill as House Minority Leader Doug Skaff, left, and Del. Evan Hansen, right, listen. (Photo by Steven Allen Adams)

CHARLESTON — Democratic leaders in the House of Delegates hope to build on West Virginia’s successful primary and general election last year with a “total rewrite” of election law.

House Bill 2814, the Election Security, Access, and Modernization Act of 2021, was introduced Tuesday in the House of Delegates. The bill was referred to the Judiciary and Finance committees.

Del. John Doyle, D-Jefferson, was the lead sponsor of the bill. He was joined Tuesday in a press conference with House Minority Leader Doug Skaff, D-Kanawha, and Del. Evan Hansen, D-Monongalia.

“We think that we should do whatever we can possibly do to make it easier for West Virginians to vote in elections,” Doyle said. “It is a total rewrite of the state’s election law.”

The 55-page bill would allow for no-excuse absentee voting. The current law requires those requesting absentee ballots to list a reason on the application. The bill also would require absentee ballots be mailed to all active voters, simplify requirements for requesting emergency absentee ballots and allow for absentee ballot drop-off boxes (one box per 10,000 active voters).

West Virginians were able to use the COVID-19 pandemic as a valid medical excuse to request an absentee ballot for the 2021 primary and general elections. All registered voters were mailed postcard-size absentee ballot applications for the primary, which was moved to June 2020 by executive order. For the general election, a web portal was created to request an absentee ballot.

According to the West Virginia Secretary of State, the 2020 election was the second highest election in state history for voter turnout with 802,726 ballots cast. Hansen said West Virginia’s pandemic absentee voting plan should continue on as a permanent plan.

“Due to those changes in the rules, we had unprecedented high turnout,” Hansen said. “Some of these things that we tried and experimented with last year, we need to put into state code. We’re proud of what we did, but we can go even a little bit further than those changes that were made by the secretary of state in order to have even more secure elections and have even greater accessibility.”

“We have a test pilot and it worked last year,” Skaff agreed. “We had something that created one of the best voter turnouts that we’ve ever had even during a pandemic. So why not learn from that, take that and expand it.”

While state code allows for hand-delivering absentee ballots to county clerks one day before an election, HB 2814 would allow absentee ballots to be hand-delivered to county clerks on election day. The bill would also allow for hand-delivery of up to 10 ballots by one person to a county clerk, also known as “ballot harvesting.”

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 10 states allow a family member to deliver a ballot for a voter, while 26 states allow a designee to deliver the absentee ballot, putting limits on the number of ballots a designee can deliver at one time. West Virginia already allows one person to deliver no more than two absentee ballots.

In 2019, a Republican operative in North Carolina was charged with several felonies related to allegedly encouraging others to sign false statements that they had witnessed a voter fill out an absentee ballot, then mailing in improper ballots. North Carolina tightened regulations for ballot harvesting.

Doyle said he believes that the limit of 10 absentee ballots per one person for hand-delivery is low enough to make similar ballot harvesting operations difficult.

“We debated that a lot and we need to have a provision where a member of a family can take the ballots from the other members of that family,” Doyle said. “That the number 10 is, I acknowledge, an arbitrary figure. I personally think that if somebody is going into the ballot harvesting business, they’re not going to do it if the limit is 10.”

Other provisions of HB 2814 would eliminate signature match requirements for provisional ballots and at the polls, remove the authority of poll officials from questioning voter claims of disability for the purpose of having assistance when it isn’t needed, extends the time period for a confirmation card to be mailed to idle voters from four years to 12 years, and removes federal requirements to remove inactive voter registrations after non-voting in two federal general elections.

County clerks, with the help of the Secretary of State, have removed 253,263 voters files since 2017 due to people who have moved and not updated their addresses with county clerks, deceased voters, duplicates, felons, and outdated files. The federal National Voter Registration Act requires the voters receive notice before being removed, along with a two federal election waiting period.

Doyle said he believes that removing the NVRA requirements and keeping non-voting residents on the active voter list for 12 years would withstand legal scrutiny.

“We think that no one should be stricken from the roles simply because they don’t vote,” Doyle said. “Every American citizen has a right to vote, and every American citizen has a right to choose not to vote should he or she desire. We want them to vote.”

Doyle said the Secretary of State’s Office was not consulted in the drafting of the bill, but he did reach out to state election officials Monday to give them a heads up and ask for a fiscal note. Secretary of State Mac Warner said the office was still reviewing the bill.

“Maintaining confidence in our election process will always be our highest priority,” Warner said. “West Virginia’s county clerks administered a safe and secure election by keeping integrity at the forefront of their 2020 election administration. We look forward to reviewing and discussing every legislative proposal that seeks to modify election processes to ensure that West Virginia maintains the level of excellence we had in 2020.”

The bill also allows for additional early voting locations, expands the number of days for community voting, expands the time for Saturday early voting and allows for Sunday early voting.

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