West Virginia official wants feds to butt out of elections, voter registration

EDITOR’S NOTE: This page is part of a comprehensive guide to voting rights across the U.S. and in Puerto Rico. 

West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner, a Republican, is pushing back against federal election measures.

“The federal government needs to stay in their lane,” Deputy Chief of Staff Mike Queen said. “Voter registration is up to the states.”

The secretary of state takes issue with the Sustaining Our Democracy Act, according to Queen, because it would encroach upon states’ rights to manage their own elections.

Minnesota Democrat Senator Amy Klobuchar helped sponsor the act.

“This legislation helps provide state and local governments with the funding they need to effectively administer elections and eliminate barriers to voting,” Klobuchar said in a news release.

Warner has also objected to President Biden’s executive order directing federal agencies to conduct voter registration. He visited Congress several times to oppose federal election intervention, Queen said.

“It is not necessary or appropriate for voter registration services to be mandated or offered at every federal agency without a state requesting such assistance,” Warner wrote Biden.

Early voters line up outside of the Vienna Community Building to cast their ballots in Vienna, West Virginia, on October 21, 2020.
STEPHEN ZENNER, AFP via Getty Images

The White House said in a news release “too many Americans” face voting obstacles, and that this order would simply help overcome those.

Federal voter registration could create confusion for secretaries of state by creating extra work or duplicate registrations, according to Queen. He said when Warner first took office, his main priority was cleaning West Virginia’s voter registration of 387,000 ineligible voters who were dead, had moved, or changed their name.

“We really try to stay away from making this a partisan issue,” Queen said. “Our priority is to refocus the federal government on what they can really do to help us.”

The secretary of state also aims to make it “easy to vote, hard to cheat,” according to Queen.

West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner
It is not necessary or appropriate for voter registration services to be mandated or offered at every federal agency without a state requesting such assistance.

The state currently requires voter ID, a valid excuse to vote absentee, and penalizes voter fraud with a sentence of 1 to 10 years. The West Virginia House passed a bill in March 2022 that labels the crime a felony. This comes after officials convicted and sentenced several West Virginia residents in 2021 for election fraud. 

If one commits voter fraud in West Virginia, Queen said officials will “throw the book at you.”

“Voter confidence in the election process is at an all-time high,” he said.

West Virginia has a complicated voting history

West Virginia became a state in 1863 because of the Civil War and Virginia’s voting restrictions.

Virginia, which formerly included West Virginia, mostly determined voting rights based upon property holdings. Residents in western Virginia found this unfair because they owned less property. When Virginia seceded from the Union after the battle of Fort Sumter, pro-Union residents in western Virginia began the process of creating a new state. 

Congress’ approval of West Virginian statehood hinged on the state constitution’s Willey Amendment, which guaranteed the eventual emancipation of slaves. West Virginia adopted the amendment in March 1863, and President Abraham Lincoln officially recognized the state on June 20, 1863.

The 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments of the late 1860s legally offered equal protection for the rights of all Americans. The West Virginia state legislature recognized the 15th Amendment in 1869, allowing Black residents to vote. Black residents led political campaigns beginning in 1877, and became a significant voting force in the election of 1888. From 1888 to 1930, more Black professionals moved to West Virginia, especially areas like McDowell County.

Andrew Jackson, seventh U.S. President.
Andrew Jackson, seventh U.S. President.

Southern states under President Andrew Johnson, however, began to circumvent the Constitution with Jim Crow laws. While West Virginia officially denied having Jim Crow laws, the state discriminated against Black residents in “lodging, public institutions, public halls and restaurants,” and white workers often got better coal mine and railroad jobs. 

West Virginia women’s suffrage began to gain momentum in 1910. The state considered women’s suffrage in 1916, but an overwhelming majority voted against it. Northern, industrial West Virginia was more supportive of women’s suffrage, while Southern and rural areas, especially those with former Confederate sympathies, were among its staunchest opponents. 

West Virginia’s legislature voted to ratify the 19th Amendment in March 1920, making it one of the first 36 states to support women’s suffrage. Many women involved in the state’s suffrage movement went on to become involved with groups like the West Virginia Christian Temperance Union, the West Virginia League of Women Voters, and both Republican and Democratic parties.

West Virginia voters made progress over time. Republican Minnie Buckingham Parker was appointed to the state House of Delegates in 1928, becoming the first Black woman to serve in a state legislature. Democrat Elizabeth Simpson Drewry became the state’s first Black woman elected to the House of Delegates in 1950, where she served until 1964. In the 1970s, more black residents began winning elections to lead unions and city governments.

“Everyone who is eligible has the right to register,” Queen said. “Everyone who is registered has the right to cast their ballot.”



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