HAMLIN, W.Va. -- Voters cast their ballots in 43 constituencies throughout Ireland on May 24, 2007, and again on Feb. 25, 2011. At those two general elections, 165 members of parliament were elected, from which the successful parties formed a government. I watched from afar, some would say, disenfranchised.
On a warm October morning in 2008, my wife, daughter and I took our seats in the Robert C. Byrd U.S. Courthouse in Charleston for a naturalization ceremony. Before U.S. Judge Joseph Goodwin, I became an American citizen. By lunchtime, I had registered to vote at the Lincoln County clerk's office. Within days, I cast my first ballot in a U.S. election.
On Jan. 30, 2012, I returned to the federal courthouse for the first time since becoming a citizen, for a news conference. There, U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin and West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant revealed details of a 20-month probe into absentee ballot fraud in Lincoln County.
I sat out the 2007 and 2011 Irish general elections for a most practical reason. Absentee voting is a privilege not extended to the Irish emigrant. It has been talked about and proposed throughout the years. It has been rightly suggested that the vote should be made available to those Irish who have not settled in foreign lands, and who, perhaps, are working or studying overseas. My home today is Lincoln County, and voting in two national elections seems a little greedy. Ireland is surviving without my scratchings on a ballot paper, so pity me not.
The right to vote is supposedly sacred in the United States. Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of state and federal authorities to make elections accessible, the privilege of voting is tarnished in places. The 2010 absentee ballot fraud in Lincoln County arguably cheapened every vote cast in that election. Candidates from the top to the bottom of the ballot gained from the scheme, some knowingly and some unknowingly. It made little difference in many races, but was key to what became Pyrrhic victories for some.
Explanations regarding the massive increase in absentee votes were offered throughout the 2010 summer of discontent. It was championed as a "grass-roots effort" and a "get out the vote" campaign. Some heaped praise on the endeavor, suggesting that other counties should learn from Lincoln County's groundbreaking approach, an example of politicians taking voter outreach to a new dimension.
Sadly, it seems the outreach was not limited to the local community, nor the voter's porch, nor his threshold, nor his living room. According to the U.S. Attorney's Office, this exercise in voter outreach even included picking up the pen and marking the ballot for some voters. That's reaching just a bit too far.
If this was a "grass-roots effort," where was that concern for the democratic process when Earl Ray Tomblin was chasing election to an unexpired term as governor more recently? Do the displaced workers, the isolated, the housebound, the sick and the disabled not deserve to vote in special elections also? The Lincoln County clerk's office had over 800 "requests" for absentee ballots in the 2010 Democratic primary election. For the Tomblin primary and special general elections, there was barely a handful of ballots sought.
It is a privilege to be allowed to write on the county's current affairs in this paper every week. Whether reporting on Hamlin Town Council's tense exchanges, the septic tank troubles of the Left Fork watershed, or mighty turnips grown in Branchland, the kindness and sincerity of the people with whom I work never fails to amaze. Even in these difficult days of rumor and intrigue at the seat of government, elected officials and staff have remained as polite, cooperative and approachable as ever.
It is similarly a privilege to vote in Lincoln County. In covering election campaigns from the depths of January until the emerging warmth of May, I get a chance to make a most informed decision when voting. As the county's current ordeal unfolds, I hope that on the evening of May 8, the voting privileges of the naturalized citizen, the housebound invalid, the scholar in Morgantown or the serving soldier in Afghanistan, will all be respected and honored.
O'Donoghue is managing editor of The Lincoln Journal. This commentary was reprinted with permission.