Elections, West Virginia Legislature

Absentee ballot bill gives House Judiciary some headaches, gets sent back for more work

MORGANTOWN — A bill aimed at preventing abuse of absentee ballots is giving the House Judiciary Committee some mild headaches. A revised version of the bill designed to fix some problems in the introduced version still raised too many questions in committee on Friday and was referred to a subcommittee for further adjustment.

The introduced version of HB 4016 would have made it illegal “for any person, including any election official, to mail or deliver an application for an absentee ballot to any voter except when specifically requested by that voter.”

That was found to be too restrictive so what was laid before members on Friday said a voter’s immediate family member or caregiver could request and receive an absentee ballot on behalf of the voter.

It carried two tiers of misdemeanor penalties, patterned after a similar bill, HB 4293, that passed the House 72-22 in 2022 but died in the Senate.

The first tier applied to any election official who knowingly and intentionally delivered an absentee ballot application without the voter’s request. The second tier applied to any member of the public who knowingly and intentionally delivered 10 or more applications to a group of people without their request.

Patti Hamilton, speaking for the West Virginia County Clerks Association, provided some background on how absentee ballots work. Nobody gets a ballot unless they apply and the application is signed, she said. The application contains a list of reasons for being unable to vote in person during early voting or on election day.

A voter, such as a snowbird who is going to be out of town, she said, would have the ballot mailed to the address where they are, not their home address.

Except for 2020, when the absentee ballot rules were temporarily broadened for COVID, she said, absentee voting is seldom used and makes up only a small portion of all ballots cast.

Delegate Evan Hansen, D-Monongalia, asked Hamilton if it would be illegal for him to make 15 copies of an absentee ballot application and drop them on a table at his father’s senior home.

Hamilton said yes, though nursing home directors often request batches of applications, and under this bill they would qualify as caregivers.

“County clerks are fond of saying they do what the law tells them to do. If more [applications] are submitted, they will process them.”

Delegate Joey Garcia, D-Marion, pointed out that absentee ballot applications are public documents and asked committee counsel if it is illegal to make and deliver copies of other public documents without someone’s request. Counsel said he was not aware of any instances.

The possibility of turning someone with good intentions into a criminal for delivering too many ballot applications was the chief source of the troubles during the discussion. So, committee chair Tom Fast, R-Fayette, designated a three-person subcommittee to rework the bill. He told them to meet at soon as possible so they can get the bill back on the full committee agenda.

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