CHARLESTON – Recently, Texas media reported that approximately 58,000 non-U.S. citizens may have voted in Texas elections. While Texas Secretary of State David Whitley took proactive steps to ensure the integrity of Texas’s elections, reports like this reinforce the overwhelming need to remain vigilant in protecting our elections.
Out West, California Secretary of State Alex Padilla is wrestling with a Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) computer glitch that threw some 23,000 voter files out of sync, causing voter information to be assigned to the wrong people in the voter registration system. California media headlines include “Did non-citizens vote last year? California officials still can’t say,” and “California DMV mishandled thousands of voter registrations.”
Here in West Virginia, we have passed an automatic voter registration law similar to California but have not yet implemented it. Counties’ lack of appropriating funding and insufficient staffing for our local election officials are just a couple of reasons why this law has been delayed once already, and Information Technology specialists point to real technical issues akin to what happened in California as reason for additional concern.
West Virginia voters should know that as the Chief Election Officer for the state, I am closely following these situations and taking precautions to protect West Virginia’s election process.
We have to make a choice: either implement well thought-out laws, with the support from the clerks who implement them, that encourage free and fair elections, or we can continue enacting political decisions that have unintended consequences on our voting processes. The latter will undoubtedly adversely impact the integrity of our voter rolls and election systems infrastructure.
For the record, I remain guarded against election processes for mandated voter registration that are described by lobbyists as to “significantly influence who we choose to represent us in 2019,” rather than encourage fair and free elections that are not subject for tampering or fraud.
While mandated “automatic” voter registration systems undeniably increase registrations, they also generate pitfalls that don’t currently exist. As Texas and California are now experiencing, non-citizens who lawfully receive a driver’s license at the DMV might inadvertently be registered to vote, or provided the ability to register to vote online using their driver’s license number.
In fact, we experienced one such case here in West Virginia in the 2016 election where a non-citizen registered to vote online using his driver’s license number and our laws provide no mechanism for the Secretary of State to know that non-citizen is ineligible.
Thankfully, this one vote didn’t influence the outcome of any election, but one vote in our sister state Virginia last year affected the party in power at the statehouse. Fraudulently claiming citizenship for voter registration is a crime, so the bad actor here was convicted of illegally voting, was convicted and is currently pending deportation.
In West Virginia, we are constantly working to keep our voter registration rolls updated and accurate. We work closely with DMV, Social Security Administration, Division of Corrections and other state and federal agencies to identify records that need investigating. Our investigation unit then aggressively pursues potential voter fraud, leading to considerable success so far.
Prior to the 2018 General Election, three people were arrested for illegally voting and plead guilty. Another person was arrested for perjury in the registration process.
To reduce opportunities for fraud, we removed 109,430 outdated, duplicate, deceased and convicted felon voter files from the state’s voter registration lists by working with county clerks. Importantly, accurate voter lists also include the registration of eligible new voters. In that same 24-month period, we registered 107,473 new, live voters.
If we proceed with mandated “automatic” voter registration without making sufficient upfront investment in people, training and equipment, we will negate all the housecleaning efforts made to-date on voter list maintenance.
West Virginia will need to be prepared for an influx of unintended registrations by DMV customers who do not meet citizenship qualifications as well as an exponential increase of opportunities for human errors due to volume. These are avoidable mistakes that will plague our voter rolls for years to come, and we can expect headlines similar to those in Texas and California.
Our Legislature must provide leadership to solve the problem now, not kick the can down the road for someone else to fix.
Being proactive in our approach, West Virginia has not yet experienced the issues other states are facing. We’ve addressed these challenges in a very deliberative manner in an effort to perfect our databases and thereby reduce the opportunity for fraud.
Working together with our Legislature, the Governor, our County Clerks and interested citizens, we will continue our pioneering ways to lead our nation in providing safe, secure and fair elections for the future. Voter confidence depends on it.
Warner is West Virginia's Secretary of State.