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West Virginians take a lively interest in politics. In times past, politicking continued through election day, even at the polls, a colorful scene as the party faithful and the candidates themselves handed out literature and buttonholed incoming voters. Election day had many of the aspects of a festive holiday, especially in rural areas where the polls provided a gathering place. The reforms of recent years have made elections quieter affairs, but the day remains special for many West Virginians.

West Virginia’s first election was conducted in 1863, following creation of the state. Elections were conducted annually until a new constitution adopted in 1872 changed elections to the current two-year cycle. Primary elections are now conducted in May of even-numbered years, with the general election following on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November of the same year. The purpose of the primary election is for each party to select its candidates for the November general election. Names may also be added to the ballot by petition rather than through a party primary, although this process is difficult. Given the strength of the Democratic Party in most of the 20th century, victory in the party primary was often tantamount to election.

The poll workers who coordinate the election on the precinct level are selected by the county commissions from names provided by the Democratic and Republican county executive committees. Generally, polling places have five workers for each precinct. In order to serve as a poll worker, one must meet the qualifications to vote. The workers are required to attend training prior to election day and are paid for their work.

Election day starts early, with the polls opening at 6:30 a.m. Before opening, the poll workers must prepare the polling place and get ready for their first voter. Throughout the day they check to determine if individuals are registered to vote and deal with all the details of the election. The secretary of state monitors elections from Charleston from before the polls open on election day until all the issues are resolved after midnight. Ballots are counted at the polling place in the case of paper ballots, and taken to the county clerks office for counting when punch card ballots are used. Later, the county commission formally certifies the local election results to the secretary of state.

A final ritual begins when polls close and the unofficial election returns start to come in, as West Virginians gather at county courthouses and candidate headquarters to await the people’s decision.

West Virginia has about 1,900 polling places in its 55 counties. With a minimum of five workers per precinct, there is an election day workforce of about 13,000 people. Election day is a big administrative task. Elections are further complicated because different counties use different voting methods. Since 1986, electioneering has been prohibited within 300 feet of the polls.

Many West Virginia voters now cast their ballots ahead of election day. Early voting began in West Virginia with the primary in 2002. During that election, 14,522 people cast their ballots early, accounting for 4.3 percent of all ballots cast. In the 2012 general election, there were 150,666 ballots cast early, representing about 20 percent of the total. The early voting period was once 15 days long, but is now 10 days long.

In 2020, the worldwide coronavirus outbreak affected many primary and general elections, including West Virginia’s. Typically, the state only allows voting by absentee ballot for specific reasons that would make it impossible to physically visit the polling place on election day. Because of the requirement for social distancing and the danger of infection at the polling place, the Secretary of State offered the absentee ballot to all voters, and moved the primary election date from May until June 9 to allow county clerks more time to mail out and receive absentee ballots. The general election was held on November 3, with a record number of 389,248 citizens voting early (253,243 early voters, 136,005 absentee voters). That was about 30.7% of the total 1,268,460 registered voters in West Virginia in 2020.

This Article was written by Bill Harrington

Last Revised on November 03, 2020

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Cite This Article

Harrington, Bill "Election Day." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 03 November 2020. Web. 27 May 2024.


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