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Looking at why voting in West Virginia is so important on Democracy Day

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Looking at why voting in West Virginia is so important on Democracy Day

Sep 15, 2023 | 5:58 am ET
By Leann Ray
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Looking at why voting in West Virginia is so important on Democracy Day

Editor’s note: This article is part of U.S. Democracy Day, a nationwide collaborative on Sept. 15, the International Day of Democracy, in which news organizations cover how democracy works and the threats it faces. To learn more, visit usdemocracyday.org.

Have you ever seen a photo of an opossum with their mouth wide open, and it looks like they’re screaming?

That’s me, inside my head, every time I hear someone say, “I don’t follow politics. I hate politics.”

Well, yes, most people hate politics. But you have to stay somewhat informed so you know how to vote.

Right now in West Virginia, we have a Republican supermajority. Because of that, twice now this year they’ve suspended rules during the regular legislative session and the August special session to fast-track their bills for passage.

Here’s what should happen with a proposed bill: It should go through a committee, be read three times on either the House or Senate floor, be questioned by delegates and senators, and West Virginians given an opportunity to request public hearings on the bill. 

With those rules suspended, legislators can just pass multiple bills and move on. In last month’s special session, the Senate voted unanimously to suspend the rules for 27 bills, which were then unanimously approved and sent to the House. The House suspended rules for eight bills, which then were sent to the Senate. 

By suspending the rules, the Republican Party in West Virginia isn’t allowing for transparency. There’s no floor discussion. There’s no chance for the public to call for a public hearing to speak out against bills, even though the Republican lawmakers don’t listen when they do anyway.

This is an important part of democracy we’ve lost because one party has the numbers to do what it wants.

During the regular legislative session earlier this year, the Senate suspended rules to pass a bill clarifying that when a governor declares a state of emergency, it will expire after 60 days unless written notice is provided to the Legislature. This was in response to Gov. Jim Justice declaring a state of emergency on March 16, 2020 for the COVID-19 pandemic that did not end until Jan. 1 of this year.

Legislators also suspended rules to pass bills splitting the Department of Health and Human Resources into three agencies and to create the “The Anti-Racism Act,” which Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association, called “a solution in search of a problem.”

However, even when the rules aren’t suspended, bills are passed without thinking of the consequences. 

The Third Grade Success Act, this year’s landmark education bill, requires specially-trained aides in many first grade classrooms to help boost low reading and math scores. This sounds good, but it has led to 41% of the state’s special education teachers leaving their jobs to go to first grade classrooms for better paying jobs. And that’s just in one school year.

How are those jobs going to be filled? Are special education aides going to be paid more?

Another bill passed earlier this year that has had parents of high school football players and sports fans upset is the student-athlete transfer bill. The bill allows high school students to switch schools once during their time in high school without having to sit out a year or change residency, and allows homeschool students and private school students to play for a public school team if their school does not have that sport. The bill is being blamed for risking players’ safety and for multiple lopsided football scores so far this school year.  

Even Justice admitted the bill was “a mistake,” and asked lawmakers to take a look at it.

“We are going to destroy high school sports all across this state if we don’t watch out what we’re doing,” the governor said

Even if you don’t pay attention to politics, they affect you. Politics affect every aspect of your life, whether you realize it or not — the amount of taxes taken out of your paycheck, the amount of money put into your paycheck if the state employs you, whether people around you are constantly carrying concealed weapons, high school sports. 

People often think their votes don’t matter, but every vote counts.

In the 2022 primary, there were 43 races in West Virginia that were decided by less than 10 votes, according to Secretary of State Mac Warner. 

As of Aug. 31, 2023, 1,163,147 West Virginians were registered to vote. That’s only 81.7% of the voting-age population. And that’s only people who have registered, not people who actually voted.

In the 2022 primary, only 260,274 (22.3%) of those registered voters went to the polls. The 2022 general election had a better turnout with 494,753 (42.5%) voters.

But if you look at the number of voters vs. the number of West Virginians of voting age, only 34.7% are voting and making decisions that affect all of us. 

Voting is an important part of democracy — you’re helping pick lawmakers who will make decisions on policies and pass laws that will affect us for years. You don’t have to constantly read every single political move being made, but you can stay informed enough to vote.