Essential reporting in volatile times.

Not a Subscriber yet? Click here to take advantage of All access digital limited time offer $2.99 per month EZ Pay.

Interested in Donating? Click #ISupportLocal for more information on supporting local journalism.

HUNTINGTON — The West Virginia Secretary of State’s Office said voters should have confidence in voting by mail amid the COVID-19 outbreak, reassuring there are safeguards in place to stamp out fraud in the 2020 primary election.

Since April, eligible voters in the state began receiving pink-colored slips notifying them they are eligible to vote by absentee ballot in the June 9 election, which was originally set for this month and was moved because of the state of emergency. The slips instruct voters on how to apply for absentee ballots at their county clerks’ offices.

Requests for absentee ballots are pouring in. In Cabell County, workers have mailed out approximately 8,500 absentee ballot applications to the county’s more than 56,000 registered voters, and in Wayne County, which has more than 28,000 registered voters, workers have mailed out about 1,500 absentee ballot applications — far beyond average election years.

But because of duplicate or outdated voter registration records, some people received notifications in the mail meant for other people, said Jennifer Gardner, deputy press secretary for the West Virginia Secretary of State’s Office.

“Basically, when voters move and do not update their voter registration or notify their county clerk, they remain registered at their previous address until the voter list-maintenance processes are complete,” Gardner said in an email. “Under the law, this process can take several years, especially if a voter does not re-register to vote at the new address.”

Mark Stallings, of Huntington, said he called the Secretary of State’s Office and the Cabell County Clerk’s Office after he found a stranger’s notification slip among his family’s mail. Stallings believes it was meant for the home’s former owner before he and his wife relocated to the area.

Stallings said he served 15 years in the armed services and is no stranger to voting by mail. However, he is worried because his experience with it has been less than perfect while deployed in Afghanistan.

“By the time the mail and the military realize you are overseas, you get the ballot and fill it out, you send it back and a lot of times it didn’t quite make it,” Stallings said. “It’s like, ‘Oh, shocker, it never made it.’”

Stallings said he returned the stranger’s slip in hopes of notifying the proper person. He said he is still concerned that other registered voters might have their votes stolen by people submitting fraudulent absentee ballot requests. It might not sway a federal election, but it could impact local races, he said.

“Voting should be protected, because without that faith in your government, people tend to seek other solutions to their beliefs,” he said. “I don’t want my kids to do that. I don’t what them to have to go off to war and do all that stuff. I did all that. I want them to use their heads.”

Because of the increase of absentee ballots this election, county clerks’ offices are working to properly check the identification of those requesting absentee ballots, Gardner said. West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner has also launched a campaign aimed at increasing voter accessibility and election protection.

“Voters should rest assured that there is a significant verification process that occurs at the county clerks’ offices once absentee applications and ballots are received. The voters’ personal information and signature is verified against the private registration records on file in the clerks’ offices, and any information that appears awry or signatures that do not match result in ‘challenged’ ballots, which are not counted on election night,” he said. “Rather, the County Commission, sitting as the ex officio Board of Canvassers, reviews each challenged ballot for validity at canvass prior to either counting or rejecting any ballot.”

Gardner said if someone receives a notice at their house with another voter’s name on it, drop it back in the mailbox with a note returning to sender.

“When the county clerk receives returned mailings, he or she will know to send ‘confirmation notices’ to those voters, which is the first step required by state and federal law to remove an outdated voter registration,” she said. “Voters who do not respond to the notice, update their registration or cast a ballot in following two subsequent federal elections may be removed from the voter rolls under state law.”

To vote absentee in West Virginia, registered voters must contact their county clerk’s office to request an absentee ballot application. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, people are urged to call the offices beforehand to learn how they can receive and send an application. These applications must be returned to the county clerks’ offices on or before June 3.

Once approved, the county clerk will mail an absentee ballot with prepaid postage and instructions. Ballots must be postmarked on or before June 9 to be counted.

Early voting in West Virginia is from May 27 to June 6.

Travis Crum is a reporter for The Herald-Dispatch. He may be reached by phone at 304-526-2801.