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State approves changes to election laws

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- It will be easier for West Virginians to register to vote and the list of who can cast ballots should be more accurate because of two bills recently passed at the behest of the secretary of state.

West Virginians will be able to register online to vote if they already have a digital signature on file with a state agency, like the Division of Motor Vehicles. This bill allows county clerks to digitally transfer a potential voter's signature from a driver's license application to the voter registration form.

Secretary of State Natalie Tennant said that eventually they will be able to use other identifiers, like a Social Security number, to allow online registration for people without a signature on file.

The deadline for registering to vote will remain the same, 21 days before an election, but Tennant said she would look at changing it.

"I am always about making elections more accessible to the voter and more efficient for the voter, too,'' Tennant said. "I'm not sure that we are able to do, on Election Day, same-day voter registration. I think that we might be able to narrow the gap a little bit more instead of that whole 21 days, but clerks still need a significant amount of time to be able to get the process in place.''

Another bill makes it easier for county clerks to clear dead people from voting lists.

Tennant gave a famous example of how the current system can fail.

"Did [Sen.] Robert Byrd [D-W.Va.] die?'' Tennant asked rhetorically. "He did. We had presidents here, we had senators here, he died and we know that. But the county where he was registered couldn't take him off the rolls.''

Currently a clerk needs an official obituary, a death certificate or a sworn statement from a family member to remove someone from a voting list, none of which the Raleigh County Clerk's office had immediately following Byrd's death. There were articles about Byrd's death in nearly every paper in the country, but the clerk's office did not have an "obituary notice,'' as required by state code. Because Byrd died out of state, a death certificate was late in arriving, and no family member contacted the clerk's office.

County clerks will now be able to use "other writings'' like a newspaper article or a message from the post office to remove a deceased person from the rolls.

The bill passed the Senate unanimously, but 20 Republican delegates voted against it in the House.

"For somebody not to vote for it is just unconscionable to me. They're the ones who are criticizing what they perceive as an opportunity for someone to commit voter fraud,'' Tennant said. "And here I am taking away those opportunities and 20 people aren't with me.''

The bill makes changes to nine different sections of code and Republican delegates said they supported the key provision about "other writings'' but had concerns with other parts of the bill.

The bill eliminated the requirement that county clerks keep two copies of county voter lists in addition to the statewide list.

"What if there is a mistake or some type of error in it?'' said House Minority Leader Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha. "The way this was changed it could possibly allow for errors and there may not be an adequate backup of voter registrations.''

The Secretary of State's office can already compare its voter list with lists held by the DMV and other agencies, but Delegate Patrick Lane, R-Kanawha, was concerned that changes to the law could reduce the human input in the process.

"The language is a little bit ambiguous in that it might allow the statewide voter list to actually import that data from other agencies,'' Lane said. Lane said that computers could compare the lists for discrepancies, but that an actual person must make any changes to the list.


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