CHARLESTON – Earlier this month, the United States Supreme Court handed a victory to West Virginia’s efforts to run fair and clean elections. This victory goes to our 55 county clerks and our dedicated elections staff who work day in and day out to ensure the integrity of our voter registration system.
The issue was whether our voter list maintenance program complied with federal law when it mandates that clerks send a postcard to registrants who have not voted for a designated time: in Ohio it is two years; in West Virginia it is four years. The circuit court in the Ohio case mistakenly held that Ohio violated federal law because it sent the postcards based solely on a person’s failure to vote, and that ultimately resulted in the names being removed from voter lists.
The Supreme Court overturned the circuit court and found that Ohio had not acted improperly because the failure to vote merely triggered the local election clerks to send the postcard seeking verification of address and other information. When the registrant failed to respond, that is when Ohio placed the registrant on an inactive list. Then, if the registrant subsequently failed to vote in two consecutive federal elections, the Supreme Court found the combination of failure to respond to the postcard coupled with the lack of voting amounted to proper grounds to remove the registrant’s name from the voter lists.
In Justice Alito’s opinion for the majority, he wrote that 24 million voter registrations are either invalid or significantly inaccurate in the United States, while more than 2.75 million voters are registered in multiple states. States have a compelling interest to maintain accurate voter registration lists, and the Court reiterated the 1993 National Voting Rights Act requirement that states must keep registration information current. Heading into this decision, secretaries of state were getting whipsawed by litigants: one side saying the removal of names was disenfranchising voters, while other litigants were suing states to clean up the voter rolls. As West Virginia’s Secretary of State, my duty is to uphold West Virginia Code, and it directs me to maintain accurate voter registration lists.
In West Virginia we make it “Easy to Vote and Hard to Cheat” with our efforts to allow voters the option to register and update their registrations in many ways. When a resident moves, it is very likely that person goes straight to the DMV to get their address corrected on their license. Similarly, drivers must renew their licenses every five years, so voters can update their registration at that time as well. DMV’s involvement in the registration process keeps it easy to maintain accurate voter registration. People can also go to govotewv.com to update their voter information online or visit their local county clerk’s office to update information in person.
As far as making it hard to cheat, everyone in West Virginia should know that the Office of the Secretary of State has changed the way we conduct investigations. We now have investigators contracted throughout the state, positioned to respond to complaints in a timely fashion. When it comes to elections, should you see or hear anything suspicious, please call our fraud hotline at 1-877-FRAUD-WV (1-877-372-8398).
When I took office, I made cleaning up elections a top priority. We began engaging a number of databases, including the U.S. Post Office, the Social Security Administration, the state Division of Corrections, and national databases such as the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC) to search for names that should not be on our voter registration lists. Some of these databases had not been used for voter list maintenance for nearly a decade. Working with county clerks, we have now removed 98,283 deceased, felon, duplicate, moved, or otherwise ineligible names from West Virginia’s voter registration files in just over a year. That represents about 8 percent of all registered voters in West Virginia. This cleanup not only reduces chances for fraud, it generates considerable savings to counties by reducing the number of ballots to be printed, reducing the size of poll books, and eliminating waste in precinct materials, supplies, etc.
And, counter to the failed argument that the cleanup is done to disenfranchise voters, please note that since taking office we have registered 66,871 new voters, 20,163 of whom are students from high schools around West Virginia. These new registrants are real people, ready to vote in local, county and state elections.
Another benefit of cleaning up voter rolls is that voter turnout will now be based on more accurate numbers, and confidence in elections should increase. Imagine what the bloated numbers did to lower voter turnout statistics - statistics that media often cite as an indication of lack of voter interest. Accurate rolls also eliminate frustration for candidates who try to locate voters via door knocks, campaign mailers, and get-out-the-vote efforts.
The Supreme Court decision is timely, as it reminds all of us in this very important election year for West Virginians to “Be Registered, Be Ready!” If you have moved, gotten married/changed names, or have any other significant change in your life that generates concern for the accuracy of your voter registration, check out govotewv.com, visit your county clerk, or call my office at 304-558-6000. And if you get a postcard from us in the future, please fill it out and send it back. The U.S. Supreme Court just gave Ohio and West Virginia a thumbs up to keep up our voter list maintenance procedures.
Warner is West Virginia's Secretary of State.