CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) – West Virginia election officials on Wednesday said they are expanding vote-by-mail options to increase primary election turnout in response to concerns about the coronavirus pandemic.
Secretary of State Mac Warner said his office will “ramp up” the state’s absentee ballot system to allow people who are worried about getting the virus to cast their votes by mail in the May 12 primary. He encouraged voters to apply for an absentee ballot on the secretary of state’s website as soon as possible.
“These are unprecedented times,” Warner said.
The move comes after a legal opinion from Attorney General Patrick Morrisey that found absentee balloting can be broadened during a state of emergency.
“Our legal opinion has the potential to provide expanded opportunities for citizens to vote safely during this unprecedented public health emergency, while protecting the integrity of the primary election,” Morrisey said.
Republican Gov. Jim Justice on Tuesday announced West Virginia had its first person test positive for the virus. The person is in Jefferson County in the Eastern Panhandle and has been voluntarily quarantined since first showing symptoms, according to local health officials who said they are reviewing the person’s contacts to trace the spread of the virus. The person contracted the virus while outside the state, health officials said.
Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez has urged states to expand vote-by-mail options and absentee balloting, calling them “ the simplest tool ” to keep people safe while ensuring voting.
A handful of states – Ohio, Louisiana, Georgia, Kentucky and Maryland – have pushed back their primaries. Alabama has also moved a GOP primary runoff from March to July.
Morrisey and Warner said Wednesday that they are not at this time considering postponing West Virginia’s primary elections.
The governor had warned that it was only a matter of time before a confirmed case would be documented in the state, even as West Virginia remained the last state in the nation without a positive test. All 50 U.S. states now have confirmed cases following the case in West Virginia announced Tuesday.
West Virginia University Medicine on Wednesday opened drive-thru coronavirus testing sites for pre-screened patients in Morgantown, Parkersburg, Bridgeport, Wheeling, and Martinsburg. They will be open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. seven days a week to patients with referrals from physicians.
Justice on Tuesday ordered bars, restaurants and casinos in the state to close with the exception of carry-out and delivery food services for two weeks. He expanded the two-week closures on Wednesday to include gyms, health clubs and recreation centers. Schools statewide are closed until at least March 27. A state of emergency went into effect for all of West Virginia on Monday.
State officials say that, as of Wednesday, 137 people have been tested for the virus, with 122 negatives, 14 tests pending and one positive.
Echoing similar guidance in other states, Justice has also encouraged people to work from home if they are able. State hospitals have restricted patient visits, universities have temporarily eliminated face-to-face instruction in favor of online teaching, and the state Supreme Court has suspended all but emergency hearings until April 10.
“There’s not an individual here or anywhere in this state that has ever faced this type of moment. It’s serious. We can beat it and we will beat it but we’ve all got to recognize what we’ve got to do,” Justice said.
Both Justice and U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin have noted the virus could be especially damaging in West Virginia because of the state’s elderly population and high percentage of people with existing health problems. About 20% of West Virginia residents are age 65 or older.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, and the vast majority recover in several weeks. But for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause severe illness, including pneumonia.
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