Guest Essays, Letters to the Editor, Opinion

Why we need to expand voting rights for all

by Judy K. Ball

In 2021, West Virginia’s Legislature considered one significant voter suppression bill. Senate Bill 565 would have eliminated the most popular early voting day (the Saturday before Election Day) and made purging of voter rolls more aggressive. SB 565 passed easily through the State Senate (29-5) but, in a surprise move, the House Judiciary Committee held a virtual public hearing and then chose not to proceed on the bill. Two other election reform bills, SB 561 and HB 2814, which drew upon the successful 2020 elections to improve voter access, were ignored by their committees.

According to the Brennan Center for Justice, more than 400 bills to restrict voting access were introduced in 49 state legislatures during 2021. From Jan. 1 to July 14, at least 18 states enacted 30 such laws. Some states continue: for example, the Texas Legislature is meeting in special sessions to pass restrictive voting bills.

Across the states, the most favored voter suppression techniques are designed to restrict absentee voting, require voter ID, purge voter registration rolls, reduce availability of drop boxes, and prohibit early voting on Sundays.

West Virginia already has restrictive and confusing absentee eligibility rules and requires voter ID. Our Secretary of State boasts of his accomplishments in purging voter rolls (under existing law), we disallow drop boxes, and we prohibit early voting on Sundays. Our law and historically low voter turnout suggest we may be a role model for voter suppression, except in 2020 when many systemic barriers to voting were set aside. Then, our turnout soared, during a pandemic. There is a lesson there, if we are willing to learn it.

The right to vote is guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, but vast differences in election practices remain across the states. Some states prioritize ease of voting and enjoy high turnout, while other states, including West Virginia, erect barriers.

Voter suppression efforts typically are founded on misinformation about election fraud. However, data are scarce. The conservative Heritage Foundation maintains a database of voter fraud cases and has every incentive to find all instances. The database reveals 16 instances of voter fraud in West Virginia, from 2004 to 2021. (Inexplicably, the database includes nothing before 2004 nor the Pendleton County case of altered absentee ballot applications in 2020.) In context, 16 would be a tiny number for one election (compare 802,726 ballots cast in 2020), let alone across 17 years.

Voter fraud is not the rampant problem it is made out to be, nor is there evidence from other states that making it easier to vote increases fraud. Yet, our Secretary of State reminds us often that protecting against fraud is his main job as chief election official. Yes, we’ve all heard about our state’s colorful history of election fraud. It’s a compelling story, perennially told, and many West Virginians have swallowed it hook, line, and sinker. But there is no evidence it continues or could continue today.

West Virginia’s election laws prioritize barriers over making voting more accessible. In fact, many of our barriers are so well established that voters don’t recognize them as barriers. Yet, when presented with a novel, relatively barrier-free system in 2020, voters responded positively.

The 2020 elections proved that increased voter participation is possible in West Virginia, without evidence of fraud. Our Legislature and other elected officials gained from that participation. If they cannot see its wisdom, we need Federal intervention, including the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. The League of Women Voters of West Virginia is adding our voice to the chorus supporting voting rights.

Judy K. Ball, of Morgantown, is a member of the board of directors for the League of Women Voters of West Virginia