Stung by what they felt was unwarranted criticism directed toward two of their own, the members of the West Virginia County Clerks' Association returned fire last week with a strongly-worded letter to Secretary of State Natalie Tennant, accusing her of making "antagonistic and incorrect" statements.

The letter refers to "aspersions that were cast upon two of our dedicated County Clerks in Kanawha and Cabell counties" in media reports, and charges that Tennant added to the criticism rather than correcting erroneous assertions made against the two women. The clerks in question — Kanawha County Clerk Vera McCormick and Cabell County Clerk Karen Cole — have been accused of rejecting online voter registrations out of hand, something the letter's author, WVCCA President Donald Evans of Monroe County, denies.

He asserted in the letter that many of the state's county clerks share McCormick and Cole's reservations about the security of the new online voter registration system.

Evans went on to say, "As County Clerks, we have championed initiatives that are progressive and voter-friendly. We initiated the concept of early voting and community precincts in West Virginia, for example."

He continued, "We are not anti-change, but we want to be included in the process of change and its implementation."

According to Evans, clerks were given only one afternoon to test the new system and provide feedback, whereas the clerks believe they should have been included every step of the way during the system's development.

"All County Clerks want is to assure the public that the voter registration and election process maintains its integrity while keeping up with technology, and we need the cooperation, participation and support of the Secretary of State's office," Evans wrote.

In an emailed response to the WVCCA's letter, Tennant wrote Tuesday, "I am befuddled by the assertions in the letter that there was no communication with or inclusion of the county clerks when specifically talking about the implementation of the Online Voter Registration (OVR) system."

She added, "I value the collective knowledge and experience that the County Clerks have to offer. And I have a record of asking for clerks to share it."

As proof that she followed that policy when refining the new OVR system, Tennant provided The Register-Herald copies of a series of emails asking for the clerks' input, outlining the agenda for the 2015 Elections Training Conference and offering clerks the opportunity to individually test the online voter registration via link a week before the system went live.

Tennant also wrote of her personal visits to clerks' offices and text exchanges with Evans in response to questions about election functions and other matters.

"I truly appreciate the back and forth we have even if we don't agree on every issue," she wrote to Evans, adding, "Whether your letter acknowledges it or not, I have and will continue to use and respect the experience and expertise of our county clerks."

Evans issued a press release on Tuesday in which he detailed certain points made in his earlier letter to Tennant and issued an invitation to the Secretary of State's staff to meet with county clerks after the May 10 primary election "so we can provide feedback and make recommendations from our perspective on the process of online voter registration and improvements that could be made."

He added, "We are glad to see that so many people are taking advantage of online voter registration and that West Virginia is using technology to encourage participation in the democratic process. As County Clerks, we hope everything with online registrations goes smoothly during early voting and on Election Day, but I have heard excellent suggestions for improving the process from many of our County Clerks around the state.

"Had we been made a part of the process, we might have been able to incorporate these improvements before online voter registration was made available to the public."

Having relayed a reporter's message regarding Evans' invitation to meet following the primary, the Secretary of State's communications director, Briana Wilson, said Tennant "says that she is happy to meet with the clerks any time."

— Email: talvey@register-herald.com

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