CHARLESTON – Multiagency coordination is under way between lawmakers, Department of Motor Vehicles, Secretary of State, county clerks and the governor to provide West Virginia new systems to implement “opt-out” Automated Voter Registration. The process is technical, and needs to be done properly to protect against voter disenfranchisement that has occurred during implementation in other states due to old systems, gaps in technology and human error.
One of my core values as Secretary of State is to educate citizens and lawmakers on advances in technology – along with benefits and concerns with practical impacts – relevant to legislation affecting citizens’ rights. This is why in my AVR report to the Legislature last week, I included both the progress my office has made toward the implementation of opt-out AVR, as well as my concerns with pushing implementation before the proper systems are in place.
West Virginia currently operates an “opt-in” program, wherein eligible citizens are asked if they want to register to vote while at the DMV. These voter registration files are sent by the DMV daily to all county clerks through an automated process. Under the pending “opt-out” program, voters are not asked if they want to register to vote; they’re registered automatically at the DMV unless they are ineligible or affirmatively decline. At the Legislature’s behest, I am working with the above-mentioned agencies to properly and responsibly implement the new “opt-out” AVR. With continued coordination between the agencies, “opt-out AVR” will be installed before the July 2021 deadline.
I was disappointed, however, with the misinformation a news agency and less than a handful of legislators reported following the interim meetings. Headlines of additional “delays” and “speedbumps” were printed, which do not accurately describe the objective facts. The truth is that it was the Legislature itself which chose to delay implementation of opt-out AVR until July 2021 after learning during the 2019 Legislative Session that current systems are not prepared to properly — i.e. responsibly — implement the policy. This was evidenced by systematic errors identified during the 2018 General Election, which required several otherwise-eligible voters to cast provisional ballots. The Legislature was completely correct in delaying the implementation to give all agencies time to get the right infrastructure in place.
By way of example, in July 2019, the Senate unanimously passed a spending bill to allow my office to upgrade the State’s voter registration system, which will make the AVR process even more automated. It will also solve many of the inefficiencies identified by county clerks. Concurring with the Senate, the House of Delegates passed the spending bill with bipartisan support. Therefore, despite what has been portrayed by a small politically-motivated group, the vast majority of the Legislature spoke clearly in 2019: West Virginians deserve for us to get this right the first time, and partisanship has no place in election administration.
To be very clear, “opt-out AVR” is ahead of schedule and most likely will be implemented before the statutory deadline. To meet the desired goals, the Secretary of State will pay for the new technology with Legislature-approved business revenues. The upgraded system will help local officials meet the increased voter registration volume.
As we look to the 2020 election, my office has made every effort to register eligible voters. We have mailed over 400,000 postcard invitations, reaching every known citizen with a driver’s license who is eligible but unregistered to vote. With approximately 1.2 million voters registered in West Virginia, and an estimated 1.4 million eligible voting-age citizens, statistics indicate that every eligible but unregistered citizen has been asked at least twice if they want to be on the voter rolls.
By putting upgraded technology in place first at the DMV and Secretary of State’s offices, we will avoid voter disenfranchisement and other unintended consequences resulting from rushed implementation. Most importantly, the Legislature’s desire for AVR in West Virginia will be fully implemented before the statutory deadline of July 2021.
Warner is West Virginia’s Secretary of State.