CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — County clerks and commissions in West Virginia would be given greater discretion to consolidate voting precincts under a bill proposed by the state Secretary of State’s office advancing in the state Legislature.
The proposal greenlit by the Senate Judiciary Committee on Friday would increase the maximum number of voters that can be served by precincts in urban areas from 1,500 to 2,500.
Current statute allows for the combining of precincts with polling places within a one-mile radius of each other. The bill under consideration by lawmakers would increase that distance to five miles.
During discussion of the bill, GOP Sen. Mike Stuart said he wants to be careful about advancing proposals that change the way people vote.
“It’s consumed so much of America and media at this point in terms of the way elections are held, and how we suppress votes over here, allegedly, and where folks can vote,” he said.
“I’m just very cautious to try to think through every scenario or terms of how it impacts things, because I know in every move, somebody’s trying to swing the vote to their advantage.”
Donald Kersey, general counsel and deputy secretary of the West Virginia Secretary of State’s office, said the bill came at request from county officials. It’s intended to increase voter convenience and allow local governments to save money on voting machines and poll workers, he said.
Current law already contains a proviso that says that precincts can’t be consolidated if the change puts “undue hardship” on voters. Kersey said the Secretary of State’s office hasn’t conducted an analysis of how many precincts might be eligible to consolidate if the statute were to pass. Those decisions would be made by local officials.
But the Secretary of State’s office provided one example of an area where the change could be applied. In the South Hills area of Kanawha County, there are three precincts on one road. Because the three schools where people have been assigned to vote are just over a mile apart, current statute prohibits consolidation.
The bill does not reduce the number of voting machines that would be available in a given area; if precincts combined, all machines could be moved to the new consolidated voting location. It also wouldn’t prohibit counties from adding precincts, as long as the polling places serve a minimum of 200 people in rural areas and 300 in urban areas as required by current statute.
“There are a lot of positives that come out of a move like this,” Kersey said, adding later that the vast majority of precincts don’t have wait times for voting now. The longest wait times he’s heard of range from two to five minutes.
“From the Secretary of State’s point of view, when the counties can save money and consolidate resources, they can focus their efforts on Election Day,” he said.
Stuart said after hearing more about the bill’s intent, he would support it. He said it should be renamed the “confidence in our county clerk’s act.”
“I have great confidence — regardless of whether they’re Republican or Democrat — the record over the past few elections is remarkable,” he said. “I think this grants great flexibility for them to address needs on the ground as they see fit.”
The bill was opposed by one Democrat who said he wanted to support county clerks but was concerned about how the change might appear to voters.
“Perception is reality in our game, Mr. Chairman, as you well know,” Democratic Sen. Mike Caputo said to GOP Judiciary Chair Charles Trump. “It would appear that we are doing things to make it more difficult for the voter.
“I just don’t think we should be be perceived as making voting more difficult,” he said.
The bill now advances to the full Senate.
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