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Secretary of state opens absentee voting to virtually all voters to address coronavirus challenges

The May 12 primary election will remain on schedule, but essentially every voter in the state will be permitted to vote absentee based on emergency rules the secretary of state expects to issue Thursday or Friday.

Secretary of State Mac Warner and Attorney General Patrick Morrisey address the election in the context of coronavirus fears and travel restrictions during a Wednesday afternoon press conference.

Warner had requested a written opinion from Morrisey on whether his emergency rulemaking powers apply in the context of the coronavirus pandemic and, if so, what would trigger such authority and how broad would it extend.

Morrisey concluded, in an opinion letter issued Wednesday, that Chapter 3 of state code says the Secretary may invoke his emergency rulemaking authority based upon the governor’s declaration of a state of emergency or preparedness, such as those declared on March 4 and March 16. “The secretary’s emergency powers are broad and flexible,” Morrisey said in a release accompanying the press conference.

Morrisey said that the opinion precludes any need for a special session on election-related issues and any need ot change the election date.

Warner said, “I want this election to look and feel as much as possible like previous elections,” keeping in mind safety and cleanliness.

He explained that the absentee ballot application, which can be accessed at, contains a box under the eligibility section for “illness, injury or other medical reason which keeps me confined.”

Coronavirus concerns such as travel restrictions, self-quarantine, a virus diagnosis or suspected symptoms will allow essentially every voter to check that box and obtain an absentee ballot. He doesn’t expect county clerks to challenge the applications.

Voters can begin applying for absentee ballots now, Warner said, and send in their ballots as early as next week.

He emphasized that this is not no-excuse absentee voting or vote-by-mail that is universally available is some states. This is absentee voting with a qualified excuse: COVID-19.

Morrisey’s letter says state code leaves room for the secretary to issue an emergency rule “to encompass individuals subject to mandatory or voluntary quarantine, as well as those advised to limit travel or avoid locations-like polling places-with groups of people in close proximity.

“Under an emergency rule of that nature,” he wrote, “all eligible voters could likely vote absentee by mail while the coronavirus epidemic affects or threatens the state by relying on statewide or local advisories. A rule could also account for national directives, like the president’s recent guidelines for mitigating the spread of coronavirus that call on everyone in the country to avoid discretionary travel, stay home whenever possible, and avoid gatherings of more than 10 people.”

Monongalia County Clerk Carye Blaney said she was in a conference call with Warner on Wednesday “and everything is on schedule to operate this election. … We will still have early voting and we will still have Election Day on May 12, but we will open it up for anybody who wants to take an absentee ballot to be able to get an absentee ballot.”

Following a county clerk conference call with Warner, Blaney listed some of the modifications planned to accommodate for the effects of the virus.

Anticipating an increased number of paper absentee ballots, canvassing will begin on time on the Monday following the election but counties will be allowed to recess and reconvene.

Counties will be allowed to consolidate polling places to account for a probable shortage of poll workers. But counties will not be allowed to open more early voting satellite sites than currently listed.

Each county can set its own early voting hours, and they may need to be adusted, Blaney said. And clerks are hoping for additional Help America Vote Act federal funds to help pay for the expected increased demand for paper ballots.

Warner and Blaney both addressed the expected problem of a poll worker shortage. “As you know, most of them are of advanced age and are in the group that is most susceptible to this virus,” Blaney said.

Warner and Blaney bot addressed the expected problem of a poll worker shortage. “As you know, most of them are of advanced age and are in the group that is most susceptible to this virus,” Blaney said.

They believe the coronavirus will be in full swing around the time early voting is starting – April 29 to May 9 – and working toward Election Day, she said. “So therein lies the problem of having enough poll workers to work, being able to train your poll workers. Because you have to train them in person and if you can’t have more than 10 people in a room at one time, that’s an issue. Then if you don’t have enough poll workers to work, how are you going to keep the precincts operational on Election Day?”

Citing the age of poll workers and their likelihood of not being available, Warner issued a plea for younger residents to volunteer.  There are 1,723 polling places, he said, and each needs five people.

“This corona situation is this generation’s national emergency,” he said. “Please step up and volunteer to work at the polls.”

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