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W.Va. last in voter turnout in November election

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia was last in the nation in voter turnout in November, the only state where less than half of eligible voters voted, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau released in May.

Young West Virginians in particular lagged behind. Less than 23 percent of 18- to 24-year olds voted in West Virginia, the worst voting record of any age group in any state in the country.

"That's a huge disappointment to me," said Secretary of State Natalie Tennant, who is responsible for overseeing the state's elections.

The poor turnout among young people looks even worse when compared to the 2008 election.

In 2008, 48.7 percent of West Virginians in the 18-24 age group voted, slightly outperforming their peers nationwide, 48.4 percent of whom voted, according to the Census data.

But while youth voting declined across the country in 2012, it absolutely plummeted in West Virginia, falling by more than 50 percent, the biggest drop-off for any age group in any state in the country. So, in terms of voter turnout, young West Virginians fell from slightly above average in 2008 to dead last by a sizable margin in 2012.

The Census voter turnout statistics are compiled using surveys, not actual voting numbers, but Census' estimates of votes cast track very closely with the official numbers from the secretary of state.

Tennant said the lack of competitiveness in the presidential election in the state - Mitt Romney won West Virginia by nearly 27 points - may have hurt turnout.

"We didn't have a presidential election here in 2012. Mitt Romney didn't have his campaign here, Barack Obama didn't have a campaign here, not like it was in 2008." Tennant said. "We were overlooked by both sides of the presidential candidates for obvious reasons. People see how you run campaigns and if you see the writing on the wall, you're probably not going to spend your resources in a place."

In seven states and the District of Columbia the presidential race was even less competitive than in West Virginia, as judged by the final margin between the candidates. In four of those states voter turnout was below the national average, but in three of those states and the District of Columbia voter turnout was above average.

Ironically, Washington, D.C., where politics tend to dominate discussions, had both the least competitive presidential race in the country and the highest voter turnout

Neil Berch, an associate professor of political science at West Virginia University, also said that the uncompetitive presidential race probably held turnout down, and cited a couple other factors as well.

"There's some evidence that how competitive an election is impacts voter turnout," Berch said. "There's a correlation between income and education level on the one hand and voter turnout on the other. ... One other thing we could do is move the registration closer to Election Day. States with same-day voter registration typically have about 10 percent higher turnout."

Currently in West Virginia voters need to be registered 21 days before an election to be eligible to vote in that election.

In April, Tennant said that she would look at changing that date to give people a little more time to register to vote, but that same-day registration was unlikely.

"I think that we might be able to narrow the gap a little bit more instead of that whole 21 days," Tennant said in April. "But clerks still need a significant amount of time to be able to get the process in place."

Although they may not have more time, it will be easier for prospective West Virginia voters to register before the next election.

In April, the state Legislature, at Tennant's behest, approved electronic voter registration for anyone who already has a signature on file at the Division of Motor Vehicles or another state agency.

"I just think its groundbreaking for West Virginia, and we're in the forefront throughout the country in having electronic registration applications. We'll have that online in the next couple of months so that's certainly going to make it easier for people to register to vote and become part of the process," Tennant said.

Both major state political parties attributed the low turnout to the noncompetitive presidential election.

Larry Puccio, the chairman of the West Virginia Democratic Party, also pointed to possible voter fatigue at seeing the same candidates for two elections in a row less than two years apart.

"With the United States Senate race and the governor's race, both of the office holders had just, in the last two years, beat the exact same candidate they were running against," Puccio said.

Sen. Joe Manchin and Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, both Democrats, beat their respective challengers, John Raese and Bill Maloney, for the second time in 2012, after beating them in special elections necessitated by the 2010 death of Sen. Robert Byrd.

Conrad Lucas, the state Republican Party chairman, and the second youngest state party chairman in the country, said both parties need to get better at reaching out to young voters.

"What we need to do is do a much better job in involving college students in the process," Lucas said. "I had no idea it was so bad here in West Virginia until you just mentioned it. It was during college, volunteering on campaigns then, was how I got involved."

Christiadi, a demographer at WVU and liaison to the census bureau, pointed out that West Virginians also had one of the lowest response rates to surveys done for the 2010 Census.

"What came to my mind are several factors that in the end may affect people's accessibility to respond/vote," Christiadi, who goes by only one name, wrote in an email. "These factors include West Virginia being among the most rural states, among the oldest states, among the least educated states, and having the highest disability rates."

Tennant was hopeful that the Sesquicentennial, and the burst of state pride that it has brought, could help get people back into the political process.

"Here we are on West Virginia Day and people are just so excited and I'm hopeful that that can re-engage people to the West Virginia spirit and to the spirit of voting," Tennant said. "Maybe we can get people excited again about this state, and if you're excited about this state you've got to be excited about government."

Reach David Gutman at david.gutman@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5119.


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