MORGANTOWN — Gov. Jim Justice announced Wednesday morning that he has moved the primary election date form May 12 to June 9. Also, the return-to-school date has moved from April 20 to April 30.
Justice said he made his decision after consulting with Secretary of State Mac Warner and Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, who both appeared with him at his daily COVID-19 press briefing, and health officials.
Justice said he’d hoped to be able to keep the May 12 date, but the projections for the course of the coronavirus spread and the likelihood senior voters wouldn’t be able to appear at polling places dictated otherwise.
“Its ever so apparent that that’s absolutely the wrong thing to do,” he said.
Assuming schools do re-open April 30, Justice said that the all would be closed by June 6, so June 9 is the first Tuesday after all schools will be closed.
“The privilege of voting is unbelievable and we all should remember that,” he said. “I want this to be the biggest turnout of all time.”
Warner said dates and deadlines for voter registration, early voting and absentee voting would slide to the right proportionately. He expected those dates to be posted at his office’s website sometime Wednesday.
“The first message is, ‘We’ve got this,’” he said. “The real shoutout goes to the clerks,” who conveyed their needs and challenges to him.
Morrisey addressed the constitutional issues of changing the date. The governor has broad authority to protect public health via his coronavirus emergency declaration, including waiving statutes, quarantine authorities, and taking action to defend a constitutional right such as voting.
The date change, he said, is a means to maximize the number of people going out to vote. “If you have an election and no one shows up, that’s not worth very much.”
On the return to school, Justice said he hopes April 30 will still allow students and teachers some time to reach closure for the year and be prepared for the summer break.
In a phone interview, Warner’s office explained how the date change could affect some school board elections.
Board terms start July 1, his office said. With the new date, the window to tally canvass and certify elections grows smaller. If a candidate would demand a recount, the period to conduct that, certify the recount and allow the candidates to contest the recount could get close to or extend past July 1. But the office is optimistic everything will be done before July 1.
At a special meeting Wednesday morning, prior to the governor’s press conference, the Preston County Commission voted 3-0 to ask the governor to make all voting in the election by absentee ballot.
As always, discussion turned to the spread of the virus.
COVID-19 Czar Clay Marsh said a University of Washington model of the virus spread projects that in the next several weeks, several large cities could see a surge like New York City, and in the coming weeks or months, as many as 100,000 Americans could die.
On Tuesday, he noted, President Trump’s medical advisors estimated the deaths could reach 200,000.
Given that, he said, West Virginia is doing the right things: social distancing, not touching our faces, washing our hands, cleaning surfaces. Masks don’t block the virus spread via coughing and sneezing, but they do keep you from touching your nose and mouth so that you don’t convey the virus from a surface you touched into your body.
“We have the ability to write our story. We have control,” he said. The UW model predicts the surge will hit West Virginia about May 2 and we could lose 500 West Virginians. But our preventative practices are driving the numbers from that model down.
The places that have made the hard decisions – coming together, taking responsibility – have done much better than the places that haven’t, he said.
Wednesday’s numbers from the Department of Health and Human Resources showed 191 positive cases and 4,384 negatives. Justice said that raised the rate of positive tests relative to all tests done from 4% to 6.7%.
He repeated what Marsh had said previously, that the state is only testing the people with a potential for being positive, so that skews the rate a bit higher than what it would be in the general population.
“It’s really tragic what is happening in every way,” he said. Nationally, the U.S. loses the equivalent of a full airliner each day. Here, “We’ve already lost one too many people, but we’ve only lost one. … let’s keep it that way.”
Bureau of Public Health Commissioner Cathy Slemp cited some figures. Those testing positive in West Virginia are about 55% female, 45% male; 95% are over age 20, 40% are over 60.
DHHR Secretary Bill Crouch said they are looking at alternative treatment sites should the outbreak exceed the capacity of existing facilities. Among those are Fairmont Regional Medical Center.
They’re planning for the worst but hoping it doesn’t happen, he said.
Justice repeated his call for all to respond to the U.S. Census questionnaire. The census determines the level of federal funds that come into the state. “We need every single West Virginian counted.” The number to call to obtain a Census card for those who haven’t received one: 844-330-2020.
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