CHARLESTON — The Secretary of State's Office and West Virginia's 55 county clerks are working together to prepare for what will likely be the most unique election since the state's founding in 1863.
Governor Jim Justice moved the state's Primary Election to June 9 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Though the pandemic carries its additional challenges, Secretary of State Mac Warner says his team and the county clerks have been preparing for this election and potential distractions since the 2016 election.
“We have significantly upgraded cybersecurity and conducted yearly training exercises for all of our 55 county clerks, and we have collectively anticipated disruptions given the uncertainties of the world today,” Warner said. "While no one predicted a pandemic, that’s why we make contingency plans."
To help prepare the county clerks for possible disturbances during an election, Warner's staff developed a Continuity of Operations Plan (COOP). The document helps maintain election integrity and ensure safe access for voting, whether it is through the absentee process, early voting, or on Election Day. It applies to all courthouses, poll workers, and the state's 1,723 voting precincts. Warner's staff delivered the COOP to the county clerks last week.
While the COOP is For Official Use Only (FOUO) and is not available to the public for security concerns, it is important that the general public and voters at large know of the COOP’s existence. It is reassuring to know that contingency plans are in place and that workers at each precinct will have the plan available should unusual situations arise.
"We want everyone to know that we're working proactively with our county clerks to protect the health and safety of every voter and every poll worker," Warner said.
The comprehensive document contains contact information and resources specific to each county and provides guidance in the event of an emergency. It outlines three categories of incidents: natural disasters, unintentional threats, and intentional threats. In composing the COOP, the Secretary of State's Office worked closely with county clerks to prepare for any circumstance that could reduce a voter's access to the ballot box.
"To respond to any unexpected event or emergency, election officials must stay attuned to potential problems and be prepared to take immediate action," Warner said. "The COOP provides instructions for the county clerks and their staff on how to address problems and issues that may arise."
In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the COOP outlines safe operating procedures for how to properly manage an election during a pandemic. To protect the health and safety of poll workers and voters, the COOP includes a list of best practices for Election Day and provides information from the Center for Disease Control regarding COVID-19.
In addition to the health concerns with the pandemic, Warner remains dedicated to keeping citizens and election officials informed of cyber and physical threats that could occur. The COOP provides specialized instructions for responses should there be a meddling attempt, a cyberattack, or physical threat during early voting or on Election Day.
According to Warner, the Secretary of State’s Office and county clerks are committed to strengthening election security and ensuring a safe, healthy environment at the polls.
"Election confidence is the cornerstone of our democracy," Warner said. "The COOP will be unique for each county and will provide guidance to clerks, their election staff, and poll workers at each precinct. Options and the availability to vote in West Virginia have never been more robust or more secure than they are today."