CHARLESTON, W. Va. – West Virginia’s primary on Tuesday will be the first election held in the state since 2020, when COVID-19 restrictions were put in place.
2020 voters were required to wear a face mask at all polling stations. Mail-in ballots were sent to every eligible voter to ensure a safe election when there were many unknowns about the virus, and vaccines were not yet widely available.
As we transition to 2022, many of these pandemic practices have been lifted as the country begins to turn a corner. Masks are now optional at the polls, and voters in West Virginia can only receive an absentee ballot if they provide a valid reason.
Secretary of State Mac Warner said his office provides 11 reasons why a voter might not be able to vote in person.
“The first being a medical excuse. If you have these medical issues with COVID, I don’t anticipate anyone challenging that,” Warner said. “Other reasons would be if you’re in school or out of state on business, that sort of thing.”
Some suffrage advocates are challenging the decision, such as Julie Archer of the West Virginia Citizen Action Group, who said the mail-in ballot option should have been maintained for all voters.
“With the (2020) election having been such a success, it’s really disappointing that we don’t embrace those options,” Archer told MetroNews. “We still have a lot of West Virginians who are very vulnerable and may not qualify because mail-in ballots aren’t as widely available as they were in 2020.”
This is a question that is important to Del. Evan Hansen (D-Monongalia). He sponsored a bill, HB 4312, in the 2022 regular legislative session that would have expanded voting access, but it did not make it to Governor Jim Justice’s office.
Hansen said many West Virginians do not have access to the ballot box.
“Some people have transport problems. Some people have to work at a job and don’t have the ability to take time off. Some people have other reasons why it’s hard to plan ahead and get to the polls, so there’s no reason we can’t make it as easy as possible to registered voters to vote,” Hansen said.
Hansen echoed Archer in saying the 2020 election system was working.
“We have proven that we can have safe and secure selections with a huge percentage of people voting by mail, so we have the proof now. We know it could work,” he said.
West Virginia County Clerks reported low numbers during the early voting period, but fewer mail-in ballot requests compared to 2020. Marshall County Clerk Melanie Madden previously told MetroNews that this could be due to the fact that it is a midterm election with few candidates facing each other.
“The majority of offices have no opposition in this election,” Madden said. “A few of the highest in the whole state do, but not the local races.”
Still, Warner said voting in person remains the most popular way to vote in Mountain State.
“West Virginia has traditionally been a state where the majority of votes are cast in person on Election Day and there is a lot of interest in this election,” he said.
One thing that hasn’t changed since the pandemic is the need for poll workers. Wood County Clerk Mark Rhodes said this primary was no different.
“We’re still a bit short of poll workers, but we still have a group of people coming for us,” Rhodes said.
Even as many election politics return to “normal,” Warner said he believes COVID-19 and security concerns will have a lasting impact on U.S. elections for years to come.
“It’s a good debate to have, but it’s not one that should be happening during the election,” Warner said. “That’s what causes confusion and conspiracy theories. The right time to do this is through the legislative process.
MetroNews 2022 election night coverage airs at 7:06 p.m. Tuesday on MetroNews stations and online.