By: Jordan Smith
West Virginia is undergoing what appears to be a voter registration revolution as the state legislature continues to make strides to simplify access to the ballot box. The following post aims to discuss these advancements in an effort to summarize the current state of voter registration in the Mountain State.
In 2013, former-Governor Earl Ray Tomblin, signed into law SB 477, which amended the state constitution to allow for online voter registration (OVR). The state was not quick to implement the OVR system, as the Secretary of State’s Office did not unveil an official program until the latter half of 2015. In essence, the now-implemented OVR application requires a registrant to supply the same information required on the paper registration cards: full name, birthdate, location, citizenship status, last four digits of the registrant’s social security number, and the registrant’s driver’s license/state-issued ID number. If a registrant does not have a state-issued ID or driver’s license, they must instead complete and submit a standard paper form. As a result, while OVR streamlines the process for certain registrants, it does so only for those who would likely have already taken advantage of the “motor voter” provisions of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 or the state’s newer electronic voter registration system at the Department of Motor Vehicles.
As mentioned above, West Virginia also implemented an electronic registration system for voters through the Department of Motor Vehicles. Much like the online voter registration system, registrants answer a variety of voter registration specific questions via an electronic touchpad at the DMV when acquiring or renewing a driver’s license or government ID. As is the case with the National Voter Registration Act, the answers to these questions are paired with the registrant’s driver’s license or government ID application and treated as a unique voter registration form. This information is transmitted to the Secretary of State’s Office where the registration is completed. Again, while this makes the system quicker and easier, it does so only for those registrants utilizing the Department of Motor Vehicles. Granted, the vast majority of West Virginians will have some interaction with the DMV, but there will still be a minority who do not and thus have no access to this more efficient voter registration process.
Finally, in April 2016, in what is likely the state’s most important and impressive move, West Virginia became the third state to authorize automatic voter registration (AVR). In a move that shocked many, the state legislature passed the AVR proposal as a rider on a bipartisan voter identification expansion bill. Despite perceived Republican-opposition to an AVR system, a number of West Virginia’s legislators have stated that there is no logical basis for opposing a program that simplifies voting for the citizens of the state. The AVR system, facilitated by the Department of Motor Vehicles, automatically registers eligible individuals who acquire or renew a driver’s license or state-issued ID. Now, rather than opting in to the registration process, individuals may opt out. The law initially planned for an implementation date of the AVR program by July 1, 2017, but in April 2017, the legislature amended the language of the public version of the law to require full implementation by January 1, 2019. Had the implementation not been delayed, the first election in which West Virginians registered through the AVR system would have taken part is a rather fitting ballot measure meant to determine whether certain funds acquired by tax increases should be applied to a road network expansion and repair fund.
In sum, West Virginia has made a number of efforts in recent years to ensure that its citizens have efficient, convenient access to voter registration. While all of the above measures are designed to facilitate registration for individuals who utilize DMV services, it is worth reiterating that the vast majority of West Virginians will interact with the DMV at some point. The few who do not still have access to the paper registration forms available at all county courthouses and most, if not all, municipal government offices. Despite this shortcoming, there can be no doubt that the Mountain State is certainly working to ensure that its citizens take advantage of their right to vote.