A friend of mine who is originally from West Virginia, but now lives in Virginia, just early-voted there. It was a much different experience.
He was met by both Republican and Democratic representatives as he approached the polling place who wanted to give him information. He described a “sea of signs” just outside the building.
The last-minute lobbying may not have risen to the level of harassment, but it was uncomfortable for him, as I’m sure it is for many voters in the Commonwealth. Virginia has a law preventing campaigning within 40-feet of a polling place, but that still leaves enough space for political operatives to encounter voters.
Years ago, West Virginia voters faced the same challenges. Polling places were swamped with signs and individuals who tried to sway voters as they approached. Some of those campaigners could be aggressive.
That changed in the mid-1980s when Secretary of State Ken Hechler led the effort to establish a 300-foot buffer zone that prevented electioneering outside polling places. That law was later modified to reduce the restricted area to 100 feet.
Individuals who violate that law can be charged criminally with a misdemeanor, fined and even sent to jail. But that rarely, if ever, happens because everybody has gotten the message. Occasionally someone will put a sign too close to the polls, but that can usually be resolved without anyone being arrested.
These laws, and the campaigns’ willingness to obey them, make for a hassle-free voting experience for West Virginians. What a refreshing change this is from the bad old days of corrupt elections in West Virginia, particularly in southern West Virginia, where cash and candidate slates were the norm.
John Kennedy’s victory in the 1960 West Virginia Democratic Primary was only assured when his campaign dumped tens of thousands of dollars in the race. Logan County political operative Raymond Chafin detailed in his autobiography how he handed out money across southern West Virginia to buy votes for Kennedy.
That doesn’t happen in West Virginia anymore and thank goodness.
Of course, state and federal officials must remain vigilant. Secretary of State Mac Warner’s office will have observers traveling the state on Election Day and the state’s U.S. Attorneys’ offices are keeping an eye on things as well.
The candidates themselves often engage in bare-fisted campaigns with brutal negative ads, but that is a story for another day. This is about the execution of our elections in West Virginia, which works well.
Legislatures, Secretaries of State and County Clerks all deserve credit for taking the necessary steps over the years to ensure that the rights of voters are protected when they go to the polls and that the counts are fair and accurate.