Sunday Sit-Down: West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant

Editor’s note: West Virginians have voted in seven state or federal elections over the past three years. Secretary of State Natalie Tennant talks about those elections as well as the counting problems in Marshall County as she joins us in the Sunday Sit-Down.

— You’ve presided over seven elections in the past three years. How well has the elections process gone over that period?

Tennant: I think the process has gone very well. Obviously, by the time you hit No. 7, you have it honed very well. The fact that they came within that time period – I think it’s seven elections in about 900 days – that’s an election about every 130 days, which is pretty amazing. What I think that does – you can look at it and say we’re very experienced with elections, but at the same time you can also say oh, we’ve done this, this will be easy. Every election obviously is important, no matter if it’s a state election, presidential election, city election, they’re all important because of what they represent.

And for a candidate running for office, it’s obviously the most important election for them, and as election officials we have to look at it that way. Those seven elections have been very successful, and when you look at the historical magnitude of that, you see the accomplishments we’ve made.

— We often hear voters have election fatigue. How about election officials?

Tennant: I don’t like the term ‘election fatigue,’ because then I always come back and say, ‘do you have freedom fatigue?’ That’s my optimistic approach to it, my elections official approach to it, that’s my patriotism approach to it. Then the realistic approach comes as well, and yes, I can see voters who would say ‘oh, here we have another election.’ And you do see that for election officials, I would think. Now we have this opportunity to take a deep breath, we don’t expect any statewide elections in 2013, but we do know we have municipal elections. And when I look at those, I think how are we going to improve the process of those?

— This election cycle, you obviously heard about the Marshall County election problems. When these types of situations occur, just what is your authority? In essence, what can you do and what can’t you do, and does a county need to ask you for assistance?

Tennant: If we want to talk specifically about the (Nov. 6) election in Marshall County … for that situation we became aware that there were some questions, that other votes were found. In that situation, we took it upon ourselves and said we will be there … for the canvassing.

But it’s not uncommon – I want to remind folks, that it’s not uncommon for the Secretary of State’s Office to be at various points of an election process. On that day, when canvassing started, we were not just in Marshall County, but a number of other counties.

But the Marshall County situation, yes we went there, I had been contacted by some of those involved, and we just felt it was important to be there to see if they were following the process correctly … and to offer assistance. That’s what unique about our election process, we each have different roles. At that point, that canvassing responsibility was in the hands of the county commissioners and the canvassing board. We would serve as assistance for the prosecutor if they have questions about procedure, point to code. But we will not make a decision for you when it comes to canvassing.

There are two different avenues of where an election goes and how an investigation might go as well. We will investigate if the process is done correctly, and at that point, we would look at the actions.

The other aspect is the contested avenue of an election. Once an election is conducted, we can’t overturn election results, that’s where you go into the courts.

— Should the Secretary of State have more authority to intercede in local election matters?

Tennant: I think what’s important is working hand-in-hand with our counties. There are the statutory duties the secretary of state has … in training, in offering assistance and help. That’s why we have election laws. But what I think is important is to have a statewide chief elections official as I’m called to oversee the whole process (so) that it’s more uniform. … You want to make sure each county is one, following the law, and two, doing it in a uniform manner. That Marshall County is doing it similar to Marion County, which is doing it similar to Kanawha County. Ultimately, we all follow the law, but we want to make it as uniform as possible too, because you don’t want any question from voters of a particular county to say ‘Are they doing it correctly?’ They may be doing it legally, but are we all doing it uniformly because you want to ultimately make sure there’s confidence in the voting system.

— Let’s focus on Marshall County. Four different counts of the county commission race have produced four different vote totals. Would you expect if there had to be four different counts in any particular race in another county that it would result in four different totals?

Tennant: That could be the case in other counties. I think it would depend on the manner in which they’re fulfilling state code.

— Are you aware of what specifically happened in Marshall County? Have you ever seen a situation in which votes are found days after the election on a memory card?

Tennant: I think that there are situations, I can’t pinpoint specifically. I know that we do have counties call us and say, I can’t get this off a flash card, this gives me a different number. It might not be specifically the same way in which Marshall County came up with those numbers, but you might have different instances where the county didn’t put those numbers in correctly.

— As we noted earlier, four different vote counts in the Marshall County commission race yielded four different results. Should the voters of Marshall County have faith that the election process there is being handled correctly?

Tennant: The first night obviously were unofficial results, and they didn’t add in the early voting and absentee voting. And then came canvassing, which would change it again, and we anticipate that it almost always changes because of provisional ballots. And then the reason for the (final) numbers change, as I understand it, is the same machine adding early voting numbers and absentee numbers.

— So, if they were to count again and do two random precincts by hand, you would expect they would get the same totals as the official recount?

Tennant: If they were the same precincts they used previously, but if they picked two other ones, you can be within less than a percentage.

— A Marshall County official told us during their election problems that you have to be “naive” to believe that elections are an exact science. Do you agree with that statement?

Tennant: I don’t agree with that statement.

— With today’s technology, should our elections process be an exact science? In Marshall County, for example, should we be certain that the numbers after the recount are the right numbers?

Tennant: Yes, we should be certain. … We use electronic voting machines and computers, where it’s input in to get input out. Now, what’s part of the problem is that we’re human being, too. A three looks like a five looks like an eight, and … that’s the exact science of using a computer and using electronic voting machines. The problem is we’re human and you have to factor that into the equation. That’s why I believe there’s a percentage expectation that is put in place.

— As part of an agreement to end the Marshall County matter, outgoing Commissioner Jason “Jake” Padlow asked for nine matters to be addressed. What are your thoughts on the items he requested?

Tennant: I can’t speak for him, but I see what he’s done, that he wants to make sure someone else doesn’t go through the type of situation he has. Some of those points are statutorily in place, and so I don’t know if a memorandum of understanding is needed for that. I think that part of those show some transparency, and I really think that Marshall County voters, and the Northern Panhandle especially, certainly received a behind-the-scenes lesson – maybe more than they ever wanted to know – about the voting process. I think that memorandum of understanding gives some transparency but at the same time there’s a lot of things that we’re already doing from the secretary of state’s standpoint.

My other point to that is that this is why we have a chief elections official to oversee that whole process. We’re only good at overseeing the process if we have a good working relationship back-and-forth. We talk about the seven elections that we’ve had and the things that we’ve learned from them, we offer even more than the statutory training that comes in the election code. We have offered regional training this summer, we have offered training on our statewide voter registration system, on how you can use that more fully that ultimately benefits the voters. We’ve had online training, conference calls where we’ve given training. I can’t force a county to go to those extra trainings, but boy it certainly helps, and it certainly helps the confidence value of voters.

— Do all counties in West Virginia use the same voting systems?

Tennant: No. About 34 counties use touchscreen, 19 use optical scan and two use paper, Braxton and Wyoming. Here’s a great example: of those 19 counties that have optical scan, which is fill in the bubble, two or three of those use an additional machine that allows you to count them at the precinct, or at least have a machine that tells you if you’ve overvoted, that’s Jefferson and Kanawha. Right there’s a perfect example of they’re all following the law, but the way they implement it could be a little different. That becomes a concern as a chief elections official in that does Kanawha County feel the same way that Berkeley County does, those voters in those counties, that’s where we all had that responsibility and confidence in the process. As the chief elections official, that’s why I have these extra trainings, that’s why I send out emails to the county clerks. Sometimes they accept these emails and ideas, but I have a purpose as the chief elections officer, where they have the purpose to make sure their county is conducting elections and following the law.

And they are, they’re just going about it in a different manner.

— You’ve talked several times about additional training offered for counties. To your knowledge, has Marshall County taken part in these additional training sessions?

Tennant: They’ve been to the statutory training, I don’t believe they went to the SVRs training, which is something that’s been needed for eight years. … I’m not sure if they went to any of the regional trainings that we had either.

— Elections have been the main thrust of your office over the past few years but it’s not the only thing the office handles. What progress have you made over the past four years in making your office more business-friendly?

Tennant: That’s wat I just think is amazing about the people who work here in the Secretary of State’s Office. While the public view of elections … is going on and historical measures have happened, think about the other things we’ve done. We’ve had more investigations for election law violations, more convictions than any other secretary of state for election law violations, while we’re conducting and overseeing these seven elections. We’re still meeting high standards there.

Then you take a look at business and licensing, the first number I throw out is the online filing of annual reports. When I started, only 9,000 businesses, corporations or limited liability companies were using the online service. Now, more than 45,000 – more than half – of those we have registered are using it.

That does translate into saving them time and money, saving the secretary of state time and money. So we’ve done a lot of work online.

We led the way in the country for online chat, live, online chat where a business owner can type in a question and get an answer, just like that. … And then you talk about starting a business, we have done a really good job of working with the tax department. A lot of people get us confused with the tax department because you need both of us.

If you’re going to be a corporation or a limited liability company you need us, everybody has to go to the tax department, and we’ve been working hand-in-hand with them and we’re starting some more work that will make it easier for folks maybe to just have to come to the secretary of state’s office.

— You’ve been providing a live webcast from your office of big events – the most recent being the casting of the state’s votes in the Electoral College. How well has this aspect of your office been received?

Tennant: The reason I do this, it’s just open and engaging government. I know people think that sounds like political speak … but it is transparency. … I just think if people saw what’s happening in their government they’re more inclined to become a part of it.

— Final question: Shelley Capito has announced she will be running for the U.S. Senate in 2014. Have you thought about a possible run for her seat, or another bid for governor?

Tennant: A lot of folks have asked me that. I ran for governor in 2011, I love serving the state. I may take another look at governor in 2016, it will be an open race.

I’ve thought about the congressional seat, I really haven’t made any decisions. … I can see that I would have a lot to offer in either of those seats, obviously in the Secretary of State’s Office also.

Just showing what we’ve done in working with other agencies, the tax department, our work with them is the perfect example of how you can think outside of government to make things work in government.