By Mannix Porterfield
Early voting has enticed thousands more voters to the polls in the fall campaign between acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and Republican challenger Bill Maloney than last spring when the field was as crowded as a Kentucky Derby race.
By mid-morning Friday, with only today remaining to vote, West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant said 40,714 had marked ballots, contrasted with some 29,000 by this stage back in the May primary.
Looking at a graph, Tennant found a dip in the early voting on Sept. 24, the day West Virginia University’s football team hosted second-ranked LSU.
Although the game didn’t begin until 8 p.m., thousands of West Virginians descended on Morgantown early in the morning to be part of a massive tailgate party and watch ESPN’s “Game Day” show.
A few months ago, the turnout for the primary election was exceptionally light — about 18 percent — but Tennant is making no predictions for Tuesday’s Tomblin-Maloney showdown.
“I always give that question back to the voters,” Tennant said.
“What are they going to do? These special elections are a little bit different with the special elements that take place. You look back at the 2010 general election, and that was a higher voter turnout than we have had for a mid-term election since 1994.”
Tennant said the election is important for two key reasons.
One, it affords voters to take part in history, given that it’s a court-ordered election made necessary with former Gov. Joe Manchin’s departure to become a U.S. senator. And, secondly, the outcome will affect West Virginia’s future over the next 14 months, since the governor will be setting the tone for the 2012 legislative session in January.
“The person who gets elected Tuesday is going to start setting the agenda right then,” Tennant pointed out.
And that could prove crucial, given such major issues as Marcellus shale legislation and efforts to rein in the Other Post-Employment Benefits liability through special sessions this fall.
“I’m not going to determine the turnout,” the secretary said. “That’s not something I can control. It’s the voters who control the turnout. They need to be the ones that need to come out and determine it. I’ve given them all the reasons to. Obviously, they are answering the call with early voting numbers.”
Her office maintains a website and also has used radio spots to stress the importance of voting, many of them run during the college football games, when voters were tuned into WVU and Marshall outings.
“You’ve got to put the money where the people are watching and listening,” she said.
Besides that, Tennant and her staff have been conducting news briefings around the state and hammering the get-out-and-vote message on Twitter and Facebook.
In a Friday staff meeting, Tennant laid out final plans that include stationing a liaison in each of the 55 counties to help county clerks guard against irregularities or problems that could surface.
Above all, Tennant is appealing to “the people on the front lines, the voters themselves” to help keep things smooth and honest.
“If they see something going on, they’re the ones who need to contact the secretary of state’s office or the county clerk’s office,” she added.
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