Dispute over widening polling place underscored by ballot access policy
A dispute over the location of a secondary early-voting location in Kanawha County touches on electoral issues such as convenient access to polling places and the growing political divide between urban and rural voters.
The downtown Charleston site will make voting more convenient, but for which voters?
Kanawha County officials proposed a community voting location in Charleston’s West Side to ease congestion at the main early voting site at the downtown voter registration office. The Kanawha County Republican Executive Committee initially vetoed the decision, citing cost and location.
Then, this week, the state attorney general, secretary of state, and state election commission stepped up their involvement to try to clarify what should happen.
“What we’ve done in Kanawha County is allow legal voters to vote,” Kanawha County Commissioner Kent Carper said on MetroNews’ “Talkline” this morning.
“It’s bipartisan. I’m sure it will. We have done nothing but try to increase the possibility of voting and to have queues that are not long. It was bipartisan, and I’m proud of it.
These are strains of a debate throughout American politics, where voting booth access flows into the mainstream of political advantage or disadvantage. Election battlegrounds across the country, from Atlanta to Arizona, are grappling with ballot access and the likely effect on voting results.
Thanks to a quirk of an outdated state regulation, the Kanawha County Republican Party had an opening to thwart a proposed expansion of early voting in an urban area where more voters are likely to be Democrats. For now, the county GOP has exercised a veto.
“I think this location will give some voters an advantage over others elsewhere in the county,” Kanawha GOP Chairwoman Tresa Howell said in an email today.
Howell cited statistics showing that of the 6,286 registered voters on Charleston’s West Side, only 1,233 are registered as Republicans while 3,331 are Democrats and 1,130 are independents or unaffiliated and 592 are members of lesser-known parties.
“Voters in various constituencies have been impacted by the closure or relocation of sites to other locations,” she said. “Voters who don’t travel to Charleston to vote early at the two locations 0.8 miles apart also want to be prioritized.”
On the other hand, groups like the Charleston NAACP and West Virginia Citizen Action have rallied in support of the additional downtown voting site. “Regardless of the cost, you can’t put a price on voting,” these groups argued.
“There has been a trend in other states to reduce early voting, often targeting communities of color. Workers and low-income people across West Virginia already face many challenges. Voting shouldn’t be one of those struggles,” said Mary Ann Claytor, co-chair of the state’s Democratic Party Black Caucus, at a rally in support of the voting site.
Politics was not a factor in Kanawha County’s desire to establish the early voting site, said Carper, chairman of the Kanawha commission. He said the location would not produce an advantage for either Republicans or Democrats.
“None. If you really understand community voting, anyone can vote there, no matter where you live in the county,” he said. “Eight thousand people voted in voter registration. There are too many people. It doesn’t benefit anyone.”
Nonetheless, the proposed community voting location for the Black Diamond Girl Scout Council building at 321 Virginia St. West has entered a storm of regulation and politics.
In 2009, the state legislature passed a measure allowing additional early voting locations by county commissions and clerks with the written approval of the county executive committees of both major political parties. In essence, this gave county party leaders a veto.
The Secretary of State’s office was tasked in 2010 to provide the details through written rules to enforce the law.
In 2011, state lawmakers changed what they had done and removed the requirement for presidents of both parties to agree. Instead, local party leaders could designate locations.
Although the law was changed, the accompanying bureaucratic rule remained in place, never formally lifted. Law and rule were therefore at odds, a sticking point in this situation.
In recent months, as the Kanawha government considered the additional early voting location, the Republican Kanawha County Executive Committee objected to the cost and establishment of a new location in the heart of Charleston as other areas of the sprawling county would not receive similar treatment.
“If this is going to be something taxpayers should fund and location neutrality, you need to think about that as well,” Kanawha County GOP Chairwoman Howell told commissioners earlier this year, according to the Charleston Gazette. -Mail.
The cost of maintaining the additional site during the early voting period would be around $50,000, Carper replied. As for the site, Kanawha officials said it is in an area where people from all parts of the county are likely to work during the day.
The legal issues were taken to the state attorney general’s office, which issued an opinion this week concluding that the current law takes precedence over the outdated rule.
The notice noted that the legislature had dealt with the issue twice, once to give power to local party executives and then to repeal it. Lawmakers were therefore deliberate with their intent, the attorney general concluded.
“In sum, West Virginia State Code of Rules § 153-13-3.5 creates additional veto power that the legislature removed from existing law in 2011,” the attorney general’s office concluded. “A reviewing court would almost certainly find that the rule and the law are in conflict – and in that case the law would prevail.”
With that notice in hand, the State Election Commission met in emergency session today. The commissioners expressed no argument with the attorney general’s bottom line. But they spent nearly an hour exploring a related question, whether Kanawha County had met a statutory deadline to establish the additional polling location.
Since the decision-making process took place over several meetings and months, much of the questions asked by election commissioners were aimed at determining when the actual decision was made.
After a brief discussion in executive session, members of the Elections Committee returned and advised the Secretary of State’s office to provide written guidance to Kanawha County leaders on how to proceed.
During today’s emergency meeting, the Deputy County Executive of Kanawha noted that the downtown location at the voter registration office is by far the most used early voting location of eight current locations. The county processed 22,679 early votes in 2020, and 7,995 of them were cast at the voter registration office.
Andrew Gunnoe, Kanawha’s assistant manager, called the lines long and explained that there was no street parking nearby. Gunnoe went on to say that the pandemic has resulted in unprecedented levels of mail-in voting in 2020, a situation that likely won’t happen again. Thus, in-person voting levels will likely continue to put pressure on the central location.
“There are a lot of people. There are lines there,” Gunnoe told the Elections Commission. Charleston.”
He added, “What we are trying to do is provide an additional early voting location to allow any registered voter in Kanawha County – no matter where you live – to vote early for the primary election in a safe place, which has good parking and is accessible.”