The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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October 31, 2012

Few turn out to vote in snow-covered courthouse

You could count on less than three hands the number of voters who turned out Tuesday in blizzard-crippled Beckley.

By late afternoon, a mere 14 citizens actually lined up in front of an iVotronic machine to mark ballots in the early voting process.

For five clerks pressed into duty after Secretary of State Natalie Tennant refused a day earlier to grant Raleigh County a reprieve, there was little for them to do over an eight-hour day at the office.

“Watch the snowflakes fall,” one clerk sighed.

To pass the time, some brought books to get caught up on their reading.

County Administrator John Humphrey was a little more than put out, saying a suspension was based on Tennant’s insistence that the Beckley courthouse stay open to offer early voting.

“I think it’s a little unreasonable,” he said.

“The only scenario I can see if somebody is going out of town and won’t get to vote unless they would be there today. Otherwise, the weather is going to break Thursday, and we’ll have Thursday, Friday and Saturday. This is costing the county a few bucks to be open.”

Tennant, however, said the county could have been granted an extension by a verbal request over the telephone, if officials here had followed up with a written request.

“It could have been in writing, or they could have requested it over the phone, too,” she said.

By statute, Tennant said she is obligated to ensure voters have an opportunity to cast a valid ballot, be it in early voting or on Election Day.

Tennant said her first obligation is the safety of poll workers, election officials and the voters themselves.

What’s more, the secretary said she has considered a number of factors called in by counties and agreed to let them forego early voting on a day-by-day basis in deference to severe weather.

“I’m not second guessing anyone,” she said. “There’s not been a request or consideration denied.”

But the fact is, she said, Raleigh County officials called Tuesday only to say they were conducting early voting as usual and didn’t ask for a suspension.

“There is other work taking place there,” she said.

“Tomorrow (Wednesday) is the deadline to ask for absentee ballots. I’m sure they’re in there doing a whole lot of other work.”

Humphrey surmised the one-day cost alone to run the voting machines, figuring in the security and utilities, would run in the neighborhood of $5,000.

“I don’t think it’s worth opening,” the administrator said.

While the clerks were there to assist voters, the routine business of the courthouse was stopped since the facility was closed in deference to the storm that dumped more than a foot of snow that left streets and roads treacherous.

Before Hurricane Sandy hit the region, the Raleigh County courthouse had been averaging some 500 early voters daily.

By Tuesday afternoon, Tennant had allowed early voting suspension in Jefferson, Morgan, Randolph, Nicholas, Preston and Braxton counties, while offices at Danese and Fayetteville in Fayette County were closed, leaving only the one in Montgomery open.

Humphrey said he understood that Tennant insisted on a written reason for any county that wanted to be excused from early voting because of the storm, but there was insufficient time to get this accomplished before the courthouse was closed Monday. “We just didn’t have time to get a response back from the secretary,” he said.

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