The next time Gov. Jim Justice decides to cast stones at the veracity of absentee voting and its relatively clean track record across the country as well as here at home, he ought to come equipped with evidence.

Breaking news: He will come empty handed.

Facts, we know, are a tough nut to crack and, apparently, not part of what this governor consults when he wants to have matters bend his way – without challenge.

Well, governor, the June 9 primary showed that West Virginians approve of expanding absentee voting, that poll workers can be difficult to recruit and, in a time of a dangerous pandemic, this would be the perfect time to step into the 21st Century, open the flood gates of democracy and make the practice permanent. Leave the choice to each and every eligible voter – their choice, not your dictate.

On Wednesday, during his regular daily briefing on the pandemic, Justice questioned the reliability of absentee voting, a mail-in alternative common across our country.

Justice said, “From the standpoint of absentee, I think what we’re going to do is go back to the way we were.

“From the absentee standpoint, we’ve got to know this – we’ve got to know there is a ripe ability for people to fraudulently do things with absentee ballots. We know that.”

At least the governor is consistent. In April, he baselessly warned us all about “the potential for voter fraud.”

“The level of corruption with absentee is rampant.”

Poppycock.

Justice didn’t offer any evidence, statistics or anecdotes of voter fraud because it is extremely rare and has become a Republican scare tactic to keep demographic slices of our population away from the ballot box. It is a polite way to suppress the vote, depriving citizens of their most basic and cherished constitutional right.

In fact – there is that pesky word, again – what we know is that a presidential commission in 2018 found no real evidence that American elections are corrupt.

In states that have long embraced mail voting — such as Washington state, which has been mainly using mail balloting since 2005 – those running elections see no evidence of widespread fraud.

And what became of voter fraud in West Virginia this past primary?

One case, a mail carrier who apparently altered party requests on eight ballots. Bottom line: The alleged criminal activity was caught by local election officials – just as they are trained to do.

In 2016, 23 percent of ballots were cast by mail and 26 percent of ballots were cast by mail in 2018. Five states – Hawaii, Utah, Oregon, Washington, and Colorado – will run all-mail elections this year. And in 28 states and the District of Columbia, any voter has the right to request a mail ballot without excuse in November.

Some of these – like California – are big states that have made vote-by-mail a core way they run elections.

If President Trump can vote by absentee ballot, as he does, why can’t we?

Here are some more pesky facts: Coronavirus has made gathering in small, enclosed spaces dangerous. At many polling places, voters – particularly of color and from poorer communities – already wait in long, crowded lines to vote. If you need evidence of this, take a look at Georgia’s performance in its own primary on June 9. The spectacle ran deep into the night at polling stations and should put all West Virginia election officials on notice that we citizens expect free, fair and accommodating elections – for all and at all times, not just in this era of a pandemic.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has already warned that the virus will almost certainly “strike again” this fall. That makes vote by mail an essential way for voters to stay safe while exercising their right to choose who governs them.

To ignore or flat-out block a solution that maintains our electoral system would be democratic malpractice.

Besides, mail-in balloting is what a sizeable slice of the West Virginia electorate chose in June. More than a quarter million West Virginians – 262,503 – requested an absentee ballot for the June 9 primary. And by the time election day ended, 224,777 – or nearly 20 percent of registered voters – had cast an absentee ballot.

But on Wednesday, the governor was, once again, running without facts on his side.

That’s no place from which to lead – honestly.

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