-by Ry Rivard
November 1, 2012- CHARLESTON, W.Va. – Some county clerks across the state are wary of an effort to change the handling of overseas and military ballots.
The clerks, who run county elections, question Secretary of State Natalie Tennant's decision to hire a private contractor to send out the ballots. The $60,000 contract with Baltimore-based Scytl USA was paid with federal grant money from the U.S. Department of Defense.
Tennant, the state's chief elections officer, said the program is meant to make it easier for overseas West Virginians – particularly members of the military – to vote. The issue is near and dear to Tennant because her husband, state Sen. Erik Wells, D-Kanawha, was recently deployed in Afghanistan.
But in interviews this week, several election clerks questioned the arrangement.
In particular, they questioned the need to hire Scytl and the wisdom and legality of having a third party act as middleman between voters and election officials.
The company essentially emails overseas voters on behalf of the state. The process is simple: overseas voters request a ballot from county clerks. The clerks let a computer system know the voter wants a ballot. Then Scytl sends the ballot to the overseas voter.
Tennant questioned the timing of the issue being raised less than a week before Election Day.
Tennant, a Democrat, is on the ballot herself next Tuesday and faces Republican opposition. Several of the clerks interviewed for this article are Democrats. The division over the overseas program points to a rocky relationship between some county clerks and Tennant.
Twenty-one counties – including Kanawha – declined to have Scytl handle their ballots and have opted out of the program.
Tennant said the effort was meant to help members of the military vote and she called the clerks' criticism of the effort "unbelievable."
Clerks' offices said they can send their own emails and have done so in the past.
"We opted out of it immediately because we had the capability to email the ballots ourselves," said Cabell County Clerk Karen Cole, a Democrat.
Cole said she immediately decided to opt out of the effort after members of her staff attended an online training session.
"When they came back and told me what it was, I immediately sent a letter to the secretary of state and said under no circumstance were they to issue any ballot to any Cabell County voter," Cole said.