Former polling place in Virginia
A friend of mine who is originally from West Virginia but now lives in Virginia just voted early there. It was a very different experience.
As he approached the polling station, he was met by both Republican and Democratic officials who wanted to give him information. He described a “sea of signs” directly in front of the building.
The last-minute lobbying may not have reached the level of harassment, but it made him uncomfortable, and I’m sure many Commonwealth citizens felt the same way. Virginia has a law that bans campaigning within 40 feet of a polling station, but still leaves enough space for political agents to meet voters.
Years ago, West Virginia voters faced the same challenges. Polling stations were awash with signs and people trying to influence voters as they approached. Some of these activists might be aggressive.
That changed in the mid-1980s, when Secretary of State Ken Hechler led efforts to establish a 300-foot buffer zone that prevented election campaigns outside polling stations. This law was later amended to reduce the restricted area to 100 feet.
Violators of this law can be criminally charged with a misdemeanor, fined, and even imprisoned. But that rarely, if ever, happens because everyone got the message. Occasionally someone will put up a sign too close to the ballot box, but this can usually be resolved without anyone being arrested.
These laws, and activists’ willingness to obey them, ensure a smooth voting experience for West Virginians. What a refreshing change from the bad old days of corrupt West Virginia elections, especially in southern West Virginia where cash and nominee lists were the norm.
John Kennedy’s victory in the 1960 West Virginia Democratic primary was not assured until his campaign threw tens of thousands of dollars into the running. Logan County political agent Raymond Chafin describes in his autobiography how he distributed money in southern West Virginia to buy votes for Kennedy.
That doesn’t happen in West Virginia anymore, and thank God.
Of course, state and federal officials must remain vigilant. Secretary of State Mac Warner’s office will have observers traveling around the state on Election Day, and US attorneys are also keeping tabs on things.
The contestants themselves often run nude campaigns with brutal negative ads, but that’s a story for another day. This is about the conduct of our elections in West Virginia, which is working well.
Parliaments, secretaries of state and county officials deserve credit for taking the necessary steps over the years to ensure voter rights are protected when they go to the polls and that the counts are fair and accurate.