By Lawrence Messina
CHARLESTON — One in eight West Virginia voters had already cast a ballot heading into Election Day, a turnout slightly below that of 2008, as officials relocated a handful of polling precincts because of continuing power outages from Superstorm Sandy.
Five counties were moving or combining 14 precincts into a total of 10 temporary locations. Lewis, Randolph and Tucker counties are each relocating one precinct. Upshur County is moving four while Preston is relocating seven.
Cheryl Wilt has been hauling water in plastic bins from a creek and using a generator for power since Monday. Friends and relatives had to cut the trees that had fallen in the road around her home in Eglon, a tiny community tucked deep in the mountains of Preston.
But she drives an hour and 20 minutes each way to her job at West Virginia University in Morgantown, so she’s not about to let little things like deep snow, a lack of power or a relocated polling place stop her from making a statement about President Barack Obama.
“I can voice my 2 cents if I vote, and I’ll go tomorrow,” she said.
“I want Obama out,” she said. “I’m for coal, and he’s really hurting us.”
Secretary of State Natalie Tennant said officials will post notices on the closed precincts, and are spreading details through the media and on her office’s website. West Virginia’s elections chief, Tennant warned voters not to believe phone calls offering new precinct locations.
“Those are false calls,” Tennant said, citing complaints alleging such ploys during prior elections. “Call your county clerk to double-check, or the secretary of state’s office.”
At Donna Jean’s Restaurant in Aurora, employees laid a hand-written sign next to the cash register to help get the word out about polling places. Owner Donna Sines said it’s a public service to the 100 or so customers she gets on an average day — and all people were talking about anyway.
Sines doubts traveling a few extra miles will hinder determined voters like herself. She’s going to cast her vote in the presidential race, too, but won’t say for whom.
But, she says, “If we had to wade through 100 feet of snow, they wouldn’t stop us this year.”
The storm’s lingering effects also have prompted the National Guard to provide large, heated tents for voting at one precinct location in Tucker County, three in Barbour County and possibly one in Nicholas County, Tennant said.
Today arrives after 150,666 West Virginia voters cast in-person ballots during the early voting period that began Oct. 24 and ended Saturday, according to figures provided by Tennant’s office. Officials have also received 13,122 absentee ballots as of Saturday, and officials will continue to accept those as long as they’re postmarked by Election Day.
The early in-person and absentee ballots reflect just over 13 percent of the state’s 1.2 million registered voters. But each form of early voting is down by around 2,000 votes from the level seen in 2008, the last general election that included the presidency.
Democrats outnumber Republicans in West Virginia by nearly 2-1, and they have cast 24,372 more early and absentee ballots. But while Republicans make up nearly 29 percent of the state’s voters, they cast nearly 36 percent of the early and absentee votes. The Democrats’ portion of the pre-election turnout is slightly below their share of voters.
Besides the race for president, today’s ballot includes one of the state’s U.S. Senate seats, and all three U.S. House seats. Eight state-level offices are up, including that of governor and two spots on the Supreme Court. Half the 34-member state Senate and the entire 100-seat House of Delegates are before the voters as well. The ballot features one proposed constitutional amendment, which would repeal term limits for county sheriffs.
Todd Arnold, a self-employed construction worker from Aurora, said he intends to vote in all of them.
People in remote parts of West Virginia are used to fending for themselves, he said. They banded together to clear the roads when state highway crews failed to show up, and Arnold believes only the elderly who can’t dig out their driveways are likely to miss their chance to vote.
“The ones that can get out tomorrow will probably go get gas for their generators. They’ll go get groceries. And they’ll go vote,” he said. “I think the turnout will probably be about the same as usual.”
Candidates remained on the campaign trail throughout the state Monday.
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, for instance, spoke at rallies in Bluefield and Beckley before heading to an event in his native Logan County. The GOP candidate for governor, Bill Maloney, reached out to voters in Wood, Jackson and Kanawha counties with plans for an evening event in Morgantown, where he lives.