Guest Essays, Opinion

Guest essay: Why do so few people in W.Va. vote?

by Judy K. Ball

Final election results from the November midterms in West Virginia, released Dec. 9, revealed shockingly low voter turnout. Statewide, 43% of registered voters cast ballots in the election, meaning more voters stayed home than cast ballots. Only five of our 55 counties had turnout over 50%. This is not success.

Voter turnout is the ratio of ballots cast to registered voters, so turnout could appear low if the number of registered voters were inflated. The Secretary of State’s Office assures us that extraordinary efforts in purging voter rolls eliminated this possibility.

Therefore, increased participation is required to improve turnout. To do this, we need to diagnose the underlying problem: Why don’t our people vote? Without actual data, speculation abounds and solutions are a shot in the dark.

The League of Women Voters of West Virginia uncovered only one reliable source of data. After each presidential election, MIT conducts the Survey of the Performance of American Elections, based on a representative sample of registered voters in each state.

The survey has many benefits. It is well-designed and professionally conducted, with ample resources. Such an effort would be prohibitively expensive for local organizations to mount.

The survey has limitations, too. There are no data for midterm elections. By necessity, the League of Women Voters of West Virginia focused on 2016, the most recent, non-COVID presidential election year. In that election, voter turnout in West Virginia ranked 50th among the 50 states and Washington, D.C. (West Virginia ranked 48th in 2020.)

Registered voters in West Virginia who didn’t vote were asked by the MIT survey for the major and minor reasons behind their decision. For 2016, we could compare West Virginia with the United States overall. Disliking the candidates or campaign issues was a top reason for not voting, and West Virginia and U.S. rates were similar.

However, nonvoters in West Virginia were far more likely than nonvoters nationwide to cite the following reasons for not voting:

  • Too busy/had a conflicting work, family or school schedule.
  • Illness or disability (own or family member’s).
  • Transportation problems.
  • Forgot to vote.
  • Did not know where to vote.

Internet-based tools rolled out recently by the Secretary of State’s Office are designed to address that last factor.

Different solutions are needed to address the other reasons West Virginians cite for not voting.

Forgetting to vote might be a sign that our population is not well informed about elections or discount their value to each citizen. Then, forgetfulness is penalized because we don’t permit voters to register on Election Day or during early voting. Bills to expand the voter registration window are being introduced in the 2023 Legislature.

Expanded absentee voting could address the first three reasons cited for not voting. In 2020, West Virginia voters demonstrated their willingness to adopt absentee voting when complex eligibility rules were suspended because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Overall turnout rose, without harm to election security. When absentee restrictions were reinstated in 2022, absentee voting and turnout dropped.

Ostensibly, West Virginia law already permits absentee voting because of illness or disability. But it appears our existing absentee methods aren’t working.

How could this be? Absentee eligibility rules are exceedingly complicated, the application process is cumbersome and absentee voting is not promoted. Bills to simplify absentee voting — for voters and for county clerks — are being introduced in the 2023 Legislature.

Our diagnosis suggests that the two legislative initiatives outlined above, which are also League of Women Voters of West Virginia priorities, would make it easier for our citizens to participate in voting. The Legislature, which might have a lot to gain, can lower barriers to voting and help strengthen democracy simultaneously.

The League of Women Voters of West Virginia believes everyone — nonpartisan organizations, political parties, counties, schools and the secretary of state — has a role in civic education and voter participation. Join us in this effort.

Judy K. Ball, PhD, MPA,  is the vice president and League of Women Voters of West Virginia and president of its  Morgantown-Monongalia County chapter.