Early voting location 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” right 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 it is for many Commonwealth voters. Virginia has a law that bans campaigning within 40 feet of a polling station, but that still leaves enough space for political agents to encounter voters.
Years ago, West Virginia voters faced the same challenges. Polling stations were awash with signs and individuals trying to sway 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 happens, if ever, 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 campaigners’ willingness to obey them, make for a smooth voting experience for West Virginians. What a refreshing change from the bad ole 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 only assured when his campaign threw tens of thousands of dollars into the race. 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 anymore in West Virginia and thank goodness.
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 an eye on things.
The candidates themselves often engage in naked 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.
Legislatures, secretaries of state and county officials all deserve credit for taking the necessary steps over the years to ensure voters’ rights are protected when they go to the polls and that the counts are fair and accurate.