Supermajority of West Virginia county clerks oppose federal changes to election laws

Hancock County Elections Clerk Jeannie Ostrander explains to New Manchester resident Jane Hilton how to use the new ExpressVote machine during the Hancock County Senior Center open house held in October 2020. (Photo by Julie Riedel, Weirton Daily Times)

CHARLESTON — Every county clerk in West Virginia except one has united against the federal For the People Act, a massive election reform package in Congress.

The County Clerks’ Association of West Virginia sent letters Thursday to U.S. Senators Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., urging them to reject S. 1, the For the People Act. The letters were signed by 54 out of 55 county clerks, with only Monongalia County Clerk Carye Blaney not signing on.

“We, the undersigned County Clerks in West Virginia, stand together and united, as the West Virginia County Clerks’ Association in firm opposition to S. 1,” the letter stated. “We support your opposition to S. 1, and stand with you in your opposition of the bill and in support of maintaining the Senate filibuster for elections legislation.”

The letter did not include reasons why the county clerks — a bipartisan group of 37 Democratic clerks and 17 Republican clerks — oppose the For the People Act. In an email, Preston County Clerk Linda Huggins, president of the County Clerks’ Association, said West Virginia’s elections went smoothly in 2020 during COVID-19 and the state doesn’t need additional federal rules and regulations.

“The federal government shouldn’t expect each state to run exactly the same because we are not the same,” Huggins said. “One size doesn’t fit all. West Virginia conducted two very successful elections in 2020 under abnormal pressures due to the pandemic. We have the tools and laws already in place to be accurate, accountable and transparent.”

The For the People Act makes wide-ranging changes to voting rights laws, election regulations and campaign finance. The act would require disclosure of any campaign donation from special interest groups, expedite reporting of major donations to federal candidates, replace the bipartisan Federal Elections Commission with a new watchdog agency consisting of presidential appointees and regulate super PACS, political action committees that support or campaign against candidates and are often accused of illegally coordinating with the candidates they support.

The act also would require states to implement automatic voter registration at designated government agencies, such as the Division of Motor Vehicles, unless a voter chooses to opt out; same-day voter registration on election days; allow one person to turn in more than two absentee ballots, also called ballot harvesting; limit voter roll cleanup of outdated voter registration files; expand the use of mail-in absentee voting; and create nationwide early voting.

Huggins said county clerks are concerned that the For the People Act will place new rules, regulations, and unfunded mandates on county clerks and their staff who are already overworked and underpaid. County clerks also maintain vital records, record and preserve documents, and act as secretaries for county commissions.

“West Virginia county clerks wear many hats. Elections are just one of the many duties we conduct in our office,” Huggins said. “Where in other states, they may have only one department that is totally elections and voter registration. There again, we are all different.”

Huggins believes the For the People Act would also force county clerks to scrap newer voting machines purchased by counties over the last few years, much of which was paid through federal grants with the help of the State Election Commission and the West Virginia Secretary of State’s Office.

A majority of counties now use the ExpressVote system, a combination of paper and electronic voting that allows the voter to insert a paper ballot, make their selections on a touchscreen, and have those choices printed on the ballot. Huggins said the For the People Act could cause the ExpressVote system to be decertified, requiring counties to replace those new voting machines.

“West Virginia has spent millions of dollars to update our election equipment. Some of this money came from federal funds and part from county funds. This bill wants to decertify this equipment and purchase new. What a waste of money that would be. Our current election equipment is accurate, and voter friendly.”

The West Virginia Working Families Party is one of several groups in the state who support the For the People Act. State Director Ryan Frankenberry said many of the concerns of county clerks have already been addressed in the bill itself.

“Due to recent amendments in S. 1/H.R. 1, many local election officials have not had the opportunity to keep up with the changes designed to help rural states like West Virginia,” Frankenberry said. “Input received from election clerks and state and local elected officials from both parties has strengthened components of H.R.1/S.1 through the amendment process to provide important flexibility and support for local jurisdictions.”

Frankenberry said the voting machine recertification requirement was removed from the bill, meaning that counties will not need to replace the ExpressVote machines. Updates for automatic voter registration were moved until after the 2022 elections, with waivers available for states that can’t meet other proposed requirements by the 2022 elections.

“Changes have been made to accommodate the concerns of clerks and we want to continue to make sure they have the latest details of the bill, including provisions to get dark money out of the system and protecting the freedom to vote,” Frankenberry said.

Capito has expressed her opposition to S. 1 repeatedly. Manchin has also expressed reluctance to support the For the People Act in full, instead choosing to support the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, aimed at ensuring any changes to state election laws do not violate the civil rights of minorities and people of color. For county clerks, West Virginia should be an example to other states instead of having its voting regulations changed.

“West Virginia election laws are not broken, they don’t need fixed,” Huggins said. “Other states that may have discrepancies need to take note of West Virginia election laws.”

Steven Allen Adams can be reached at sadams@newsandsentinel.com


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