Two WV Counties Resist Move to OVR

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West Virginia made news recently with its move to automatic registration starting in 2018 as part of a legislative compromise, but another issue is creating concerns for some voters and policymakers in the run-up to the 2016 election: two counties are refusing to accept digital signatures for online registrants and are requiring a followup paper form. The Charleston Gazette-Mail has more:

The county clerks of two of West Virginia’s largest counties are refusing to accept online voter registrations, instead mailing would-be voters a paper form that must be returned before registration is complete and delaying the registration of thousands of potential voters.

Kanawha County Clerk Vera McCormick and Cabell County Clerk Karen Cole said they are uncomfortable with the security provisions in West Virginia’s 6-month-old online voter registration website and would not accept applications through the website until changes are made.

Clerks for every one of West Virginia’s 53 other counties have been accepting online voter registration since it launched in October, Secretary of State Natalie Tennant said. In Cabell County, about 1,300 potential voters have been declined by Cole’s office, Tennant said.

In Kanawha County, it’s been an average of 30 to 40 voters per day, McCormick said, which would mean about 6,000 declines. Statewide, about 18,000 people have registered to vote online in the past six months, Tennant said.

Both county clerks said the vast majority of declined online registrants had subsequently completed the process on paper after being sent pre-stamped return envelopes. However, the April 19 deadline to register in time for the May 10 primary election is looming, and citizens could be caught in the middle if an online application is denied close to the deadline.

“We just received notice that you have applied to vote, make changes to, or update your current voter registration record in Cabell County, through the secretary of state’s website,” Cole’s form letter says. “Unfortunately this website does not provide the information that is required, by law, to be provided to this office in order to process a voter application.”

This looks like open defiance of a state law, but it’s not; counties were given the option not to participate as part of the 2013 law establishing OVR. SoS Tennant is unhappy, though, that the clerks aren’t explaining why they refuse to comply:

Tennant said … that her office has provided additional information to Cole. She said the 2013 law authorizing online voter registration in West Virginia allows county clerks to opt out, but that Cole and McCormick aren’t being forthright in their reasons for doing so.

“These clerks are choosing not to use the system when 53 other counties are using it,” Tennant said. “They need to be up front and make a statement to the citizens of their counties why they are not accepting voter registration online.”

One key dispute is whether or not the OVR system provides the clerks all the information they need:

The very first step in the online registration process requires an applicant to answer four questions: Are you a U.S. citizen and West Virginia resident? Will you be at least 18 years old by the next election? Are you under conviction for a felony? Has a court judged you incompetent?

If the answer to any of those questions is not what it should be, the process stops right there — the application cannot move forward.

Cole and McCormick said that they could not process online registrations because they did not have the answers to those questions — even though the answers to those questions must be the same for any application to even reach the county clerk.

Tennant, also a Democrat, said her office had since made that information available to the county clerks, but Cole said it was not in the proper format.

Both county clerks also are concerned that the online voter registration form does not require a physical signature. When a person goes to vote, a poll worker matches their signature with the one on file. There is still a signature on file for online registrants — the one from the DMV — but Cole and McCormick said that isn’t good enough.

“You don’t sign anywhere, you just type in your name,” Cole said of the online process. “Until I know that it is truly accurate and it is truly nobody trying to change somebody else’s record, I’m just not comfortable with it.”

“We’ve got to protect our voters and our citizens,” McCormick said, “and I don’t know who’s sitting there behind the keyboard.”

There are at least two security measures in place to ensure the identity of online voter registrants: A registrant must enter the last four digits of his or her Social Security number and their driver’s license number. That’s stricter than voter registration by mail, which requires only one of those two numbers.

McCormick and Cole said they were unaware that online registration required both numbers. McCormick said that might have been a recent change, but Tennant’s office said the online system has always required both numbers.

From my vantage point, the clerks’ position looks more like stubbornness and discomfort with OVR generally as opposed to any specific concern with the system’s security – but the SoS has little recourse given the provision allowing counties to opt out. Pressure may be building elsewhere for at least one of the clerks to change her mind, however – WSAZ-TV has more:

In the world of teens, technology is everything.

“They [computers] practically are our life,” Nitro High School senior Allison Frazier said.

Frazier, who will be a first-time voter in the upcoming West Virginia Primaries, says she works with “INSPIRE,” an organization that encourages young adults to vote.

She says many of her peers will only register to vote by using the convenience of the Internet.

“Everything is digital,” Frazier said. “When you apply to college, you do it online … Your banking, it’s online.”

But when it comes to registering to vote in Kanawha County, Frazier says online access has hit a glitch.

“A lot of us feel like our rights are being denied,” Frazier said.

Secretary of State Natalie Tennant, who launched West Virginia’s online registration program at Frazier’s school in September, wrote a letter to county commissioners in response to dozens of angry calls into her office.

The calls claim that Clerk Vera McCormick is forcing those who register online to also fill out a paper form before they become eligible to vote, something Kanawha County Commissioner Dave Hardy says goes beyond due diligence for voter fraud.

“Online registration is long overdue,” Hardy said. “It’s being done all over the country.”

Hardy says online systems are just as secure as paper forms and are more convenient for most people.

“This would be like being against voting machines maybe 50 years ago when voting machines first came out,” Hardy said. “The evolution of technology is going to happen. We need to embrace it and work with it.”

Frazier says online access would encourage more than just teens to vote, helping people with disabilities and those who live in rural areas register with ease.

“This form was created for them,” Frazier said. “It’s hard for them to go to the County Clerk’s Office and pick up a hard copy.”

Commissioners say they plan on holding a special meeting on April 19, the last day to register to vote in the upcoming primaries, to urge McCormick to accept online registrations going forward.

It will be interesting to see if this pressure results in a policy change in either county; if not, don’t be surprised if OVR supporters ask the legislature to close the county opt-out provision entirely. I also wonder what’s going to happen when automatic registration goes into effect in 2018 – an even bigger change for counties to manage.

Until then, the standoff continues with Election Day rapidly approaching … stay tuned.


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