Guest Essays, Letters to the Editor, Opinion

Guest essay: Restoring voter confidence with policy and transparency

by Natalie Tennant

We have a new president. We have new senate leadership. But we are still reeling. Our democratic republic was shaken to the core as lawmakers hid in fear for their lives because those who took part in the Jan. 6 attack did more than go after lawmakers. They attacked the very foundation of our democratic process.

Our elections were lied about, questioned and ripped apart – in some cases, by our own elected officials who attended rallies and chanted “Stop the Steal.” Those very elected officials who swore to uphold our Constitution were quick to mock, ridicule and spread misinformation. In the end, democracy and our Constitution prevailed.

West Virginia lawmakers have the opportunity to help restore confidence in our voting system by making meaningful changes to state law and putting voters above partisan agendas.

Listen to the voters. Hundreds of thousands of West Virginia voters requested an absentee ballot during the primary and general elections, only citing COVID as a reason. It’s a process many Democrats and Republicans agree was successful. Voters embraced the ease and security of voting by absentee ballot. It even led to the development of an online request system, like other states, that can be used in addition to calling or mailing.

No-excuse absentee voting should be a number one priority for state lawmakers if they want to do right by voters.

To streamline that process further, legislators should give county clerks the authority to use drop-boxes for ballots. During the 2020 elections, voters showed they wanted the opportunity to vote their ballot at home and choose to mail it or drop it off in person.

The current ballot tracking system is useful, but it can be enhanced with a notification sent to the voter during the various ballot processes rather than the voter having to initiate the tracking.

During the 2020 General Election, hundreds, if not thousands of ballots were rejected because voters cast a ballot in the wrong precinct for one reason or another.

Same-day voter registration can alleviate that problem. Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia have this system that allows any qualified resident to register and cast a ballot the same day. Since West Virginia already has voter ID requirements, the proof of residency presented makes the process secure. Our voters deserve this additional way of voting and we should not drag our feet.

 There are several election advancements that other state election officials and legislatures are embracing and adopting that we should explore.

Ranked choice voting (RCV) allows voters to rank all the candidates for an office by their preference — first choice, second choice and so on. During counting, if a candidate receives 51% of the vote, then that candidate is the winner. But if a candidate doesn’t receive 51%, the second-choice ballots are counted and so on, until a candidate reaches 51% of the vote. This is similar to traditional runoff elections, but with just one trip to the polls — like an instant runoff.

Security, as it should be, has been a central focus of elections. An enhanced form of auditing is becoming commonplace in many states. It’s called a risk limiting audit (RLA) and it uses a random sample of voted ballots to manually examine if the original reported outcome is correct. It limits the risk of certifying a contest with the wrong winner.

Will RCV and RLA work in West Virginia? Lawmakers would have to authorize the use of a pilot project to test them, because voters deserve the opportunity to be on the cutting edge of election reforms.

These measures also give West Virginia lawmakers the chance to craft the legislation the way they see it working for the Mountain State and not be directed by the federal government.

HR-1 is federal legislation that includes many of these reforms. The bill has already passed Congress and has been sitting in the U.S. Senate for a couple of years with anticipation it will now pass.

Our lawmakers have the opportunity to restore voter confidence with policy, courage and transparency. Listen to voters and trust the citizens of West Virginia.

Natalie Tennant served as West Virginia’s 29th secretary of state from 2009 to 2017.