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Capito, Manchin address effort to ‘federalize elections’

CHARLESTON — U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., made it clear Thursday that efforts by Congressional Democrats to insert the federal government into state election processes was a step too far, while U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said any reform effort must have bipartisan support.

Capito held a virtual press conference Thursday afternoon to discuss a number of issues, including the growing immigration crisis at the southern border and a water infrastructure bill that has bipartisan support.

Congress is considering H.1 and S.1, both dealing with reforming elections. The bills would create federal requirements and guidelines for how state and local election officials manage elections and mandate states to allow for automatic voter registration where residents are automatically added to the voter rolls unless they opt out.

“There is a bill that wants to totally redo the way we do elections,” Capito said. “It wants to federalize elections…it’s just a massive power grab.”

If either bill is passed, states would have to offer same-day voter registration even on Election Day, making that day a national holiday. States with voter ID laws would have to accept a written statement from a voter if they don’t have the required forms of ID. Voters would be able to request absentee ballots without excuse and states would be required to have at least 15 days of early voting.

The bill also would curtail the reasons county clerks can use to remove a voter from the voter rolls. It would also take redistricting out of the hands of state legislatures, requiring states to create independent redistricting commissions when redrawing congressional and legislative districts. The bill also makes changes to campaign finance law, creates a new public funding model for campaigns and reorganizes the Federal Election Commission.

“I hope we can stand firm here and say we don’t want to federalize our elections,” Capito said.

In a statement Thursday, Manchin said S.1 must have support of both Democrats and Republicans for it to move forward.

“We must work toward a bipartisan solution that protects everyone’s right to vote, secures our elections from foreign interference and increases transparency in our campaign finance laws,” Manchin said. “Pushing through legislation of this magnitude on a partisan basis may garner short-term benefits but will inevitably only exacerbate the distrust that millions of Americans harbor against the U.S. government.”

Manchin, who was secretary of state and top election official in West Virginia in the early 2000s, said the bill has good things both parties can rally around, but forcing a vote without Republican support would alienate Republican voters, many of whom falsely believe the 2020 presidential election was stolen. Capito pushed back on Manchin’s statement.

“There is no appetite from the leadership of Sen. Manchin’s party to include one single Republican in this, I can tell you that,” Capito said. “I hate to say it, but (Manchin) is on a pipedream here on this one.”

Capito took part in a meeting of the Senate Rules Committee Wednesday to discuss S.1, called the For the People Act. She introduced West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner, who was one of several witnesses at Wednesday’s committee meeting speaking against S.1.

West Virginia had a successful election in 2020, with 63.25 percent turnout, which was the largest turnout since the 1960 election that saw John F. Kennedy elected president. Of the state’s 1.3 million registered voters, 802,726 cast ballots in November. Of the votes cast, 145,133 were done by mail-in absentee ballot and 263,012 were cast during early voting, representing more than 50 percent of votes cast.

Warner issued emergency rules last March allowing West Virginia’s registered voters to use the medical excuse option for the COVID-19 pandemic to request an absentee ballot. Data leading up to the November 2020 elections showed that Democrats voted primarily through absentee ballot, while Republicans voted in person.

According to the Secretary of State’s Office, all 55 counties now have more citizens of voting age than they do registered voters for the first time due to voter roll maintenance. In the last four years, more than 330,000 voter files were removed by county clerks across the state due to outdated or duplicate files, deceased voters, former residents who moved out-of-state, and felons serving their sentences.

West Virginia also has a broad voter ID law that allows for multiple forms of photo and non-photo ID, including using utility bills or debit cards. The state’s voter ID law allows for exceptions, such as a sworn statement from someone who knows the voter or if the poll worker personally knows the voter.

West Virginia has automatic voter registration on the books, though it has not been implemented. In 2019, the Legislature delayed implementation of automatic voter registration until July 1 of this year due to numerous technological issues with the Division of Motor Vehicles, where voters would be automatically registered unless they chose to opt out. Automatic voter registration has been delayed twice since first passed in 2016.

Under a bill moving in the Legislature this year, automatic voter registration might be repealed. Senate Bill 565 would eliminate automatic voter registration, a move that the West Virginia County Clerk’s Association has supported in the past due to their concerns about being inundated with new voter registration for residents who will likely never vote, making their job of voter roll maintenance more difficult.

SB 565 passed the Senate Wednesday and is on its way to the House of Delegates.

(Adams can be contacted at sadams@newsandsentinel.com)

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