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Tweaks to election laws bring out supporters, opponents in virtual public hearing

By Steven Allen Adams
Special to The Journal

CHARLESTON – A bill dealing with concerns raised by county clerks and making changes to West Virginia’s election laws received pushback Monday from progressive opponents who see the bill as voter disenfranchisement.

The House Judiciary Committee held a virtual public hearing Monday morning on Senate Bill 565, relating generally to elections.

SB 565 shifts the window for voting early, moving the start time up from 13 days before Election Day to 17 days. It also ends early voting on the seventh day before Election Day instead of the third, eliminating the Friday and Saturday early voting days immediately before the Tuesday Election Day. That gives county clerks more time to prepare for Election Day.

The bill would give county clerks two years instead of four to move voters to the inactive lists if they moved and failed to update their voter registration information every odd-numbered year after a federal election. County clerks mail confirmation notices to these voters who have not updated their voter registration and have not voted in any election during the preceding two calendar years.

Lastly, the bill does away with the dormant automatic voter registration program, leaving intact the traditional Motor Voter program at the Division of Motor Vehicles. Residents can choose to register to vote at DMV offices by opting in. Automatic Voter Registration, or AVR, would automatically register DMV customers to vote unless they choose to opt out.

AVR has been on the books in West Virginia since 2016, but it has not been implemented. In 2019, the Legislature delayed implementation until July 1 of this year due to numerous technological issues with the DMV. It was the second time AVR has been delayed.

SB 565 would eliminate AVR, a move the West Virginia County Clerks Association has supported in the past due to their concerns about being inundated with new voter registration for residents who will likely never vote, making the job of voter roll maintenance more difficult.

The bill has the support of both the West Virginia Secretary of State’s Office and the West Virginia County Clerks Association, a bipartisan group of county-level election officials.

“This is not an election reform bill. This is not a bill that changes or makes sweeping amendments to our election laws,” said Donald “Deak” Kersey, general counsel for Secretary of State Mac Warner. “Both Democrats and Republicans support this bill because it makes sense. It does bring confidence.”

“I can assure you that 55 county clerks did not get together and decide they were going to suppress anyone’s vote,” said Patti Hamilton, a lobbyist for the County Clerks Association. “The shift in early voting just gives them a couple of extra days … all kinds of things can happen and get messed up before an Election Day.”

SB 565 passed the state Senate on March 24 on a 29-5 vote, with half of the Democratic caucus voting yes. However, some opponents believe the bill is part of a multistate effort by Republican lawmakers to make it harder to register and vote.

“Eliminating these days after 20 years because it is so much work is kind of like stores closing on Black Friday because the cashiers thought it was too much work to ring up all the purchases,” said Julie Archer, with West Virginia Citizens for Clean Elections.

“The disenfranchisement in this bill is really surprising,” said Ryan Frankenberry, director of the state Working Families Party. “This is going to automatically guarantee that we get further divided. Imagine going to vote in a presidential election, not voting the next election, then showing back up for the next presidential election and being told you don’t have a right to vote. There are going to be a lot of people who are disenfranchised from this.”

County clerks participating in Monday’s virtual public hearing disputed those claims. They said the provisions in the bill, including moving up earlier voting and ending it a couple of days earlier, would help keep elections running smoothly.

“The early voting changes were just meant give us a little more extra time to prepare for the sensitive information that has to be ready to send to poll workers,” said Preston County Clerk Linda Huggins.

“It will give us a little extra room from the last hour of early voting until … Election Day,” said Mercer County Clerk Verlin Moye. “It gives us needed time that we can prepare for the election. We also prefer to opt in to register to vote at the DMV level because it needs to be a conscious decision.”

Article provided by the West Virginia Press Association

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