With Election Day less than two months away, Natalie Tennant, the Democratic nominee for Secretary of State of West Virginia, visited the Daily Athenaeum newsroom on Sept. 25 to discuss voting in the Mountain State, encouraging development of small businesses and why she should return to the office she held from 2009-2017.
Portions of the following interview have been edited for length and clarity.
Daily Athenaeum: You’re in a unique spot as, while you aren’t the incumbent, you have served as West Virginia’s Secretary of State before. Has this changed your approach to the campaign at all?
Natalie Tennant: In part, the reason why I’m running again is because I know what we had put in place. I’m known as an innovator, so I modernized the office and streamlined it, saved money and had initiatives that needed to be implemented. He [incumbent Mac Warner] didn’t do it over four years.
The perfect example is something that’s very important to WVU students is automatic voter registration. When I helped Republicans and Democrats to pass it in 2016, we were the third state in the country to pass it. Now, four years later, it’s not implemented — there’s like 20 other states that have passed us up. Automatic voter registration really should be called “automated” voter registration and — what it is, when you go to the DMV, instead of being asked whether you want to register to vote, it notifies you that the information you provide will be used to register you to vote unless you decline. That is so great for young people. My daughter, she physically wanted to fill it out once she turned 18, but for other young people who go from their junior license to [their] operator license, [they] would’ve been able to get registered to vote then, and it would’ve made it easier for young people. But it also makes it easier for anyone across the board, Republicans and Democrats.
So, when I’m campaigning like this, I know what is possible in the office, and I know what [Warner] has failed at, so that’s how I’m campaigning. People don’t want you just to go and hit, hit, hit and bash, bash, bash. They want to say, “Well, what are you going to do, Natalie?” Well, I can easily say I’m going to implement automatic voter registration and not put it off four years — he’s asked for delay and delay.
There are some other issues that I see the same thing, that need to be implemented. That would be the approach I take. I know what is possible, and I know that he hasn’t hit that mark or that expectation, so I know that it’s important to keep us on track with innovation.
DA: Do you believe that your previous experience as the Secretary of State resonates with voters? Do you think that’s important to them?
N.T.: I don’t have to prove that part of it, but people will ask me, “Well, if they voted you out in 2016, why would they vote you in, in 2020?” and my response is, now they’re going to look at my record even more — more than I believe they did in 2016 — because they have one to compare it to, and they can easily compare it to his and what he hasn’t done, or some of the things that he did do.
I mean, right off the bat, as much as I love to talk about policy and the innovation that we need to put in place, people first say to me, “He’s that guy that fired all those people, isn’t he? And cost the state a bunch of money?” That’s what they say. I know that that’s what’s on their mind, and that’s another reason that I’m running is to bring dignity and decency back to the office because that was his first act on the job. He showed us what he was. He didn’t even interview those employees himself. He didn’t even look at their resumes himself. He had a crony lobbyist do it for him. And then, the bad part is, he still criticizes those employees and calls them incompetent in public to this day. I had an editorial board meeting yesterday with the Dominion Post and he still refers to them like it was terrible. Of course he’s going to say I had poor leadership but that’s what he would have to say about me. For him, that’s translated to other areas of the office. He is hurting businesses. He is making businesses have to drive hours to go to a building and wasting money when he should have just implemented a blueprint plan that I had in place, that I started working on. It’s an electronic business portal that brings agencies together to make it one entry point for businesses to come into the state electronically, and it still says “coming soon” for the three agencies. I had it laid out for him and he didn’t do it, so I gotta go back and do it.
DA: Where do you believe that Mac Warner has fallen flat during his first term as Secretary of State?
N.T.: Well, first off, he’s fallen flat by the way that he treats people and, in turn, treats the state of West Virginia. Fallen flat by — right off the bat, illegally firing people. Costing the state $4 million — the largest payout in state history. He blames it on others. He blames it on BRIM, which is the Board of Risk and Insurance Management, but all they did was look at the evidence that was brought through discovery and look at the deposition and they saw what his manner was. That’s where he’s fallen flat.
He’s fallen flat in not implementing automatic voter registration. He’s fallen flat in not implementing the electronic, web-based business portal, and now, when we look at the election of 2020, he is making it more difficult to get a ballot in the general election. We saw and we all agree that in the primary election, voters embraced absentee voting. They embraced the fact that the applications were sent to them, and they used them. He even said it was a great thing in the primary, and we all agreed that it should’ve been continued, but he didn’t continue it — he pulled the rug out from underneath the voters. Something that they had become accustomed to, he stopped doing that. So he’s falling flat there because he’s forcing people to go to an online portal.
Now, I’m about technology and I’m about using the resources that you have, but he’s taken something away for this when we all know that broadband is a terrible situation in West Virginia. We have unreliable internet, and so that does make it difficult for someone to access a ballot. The other thing: when there are counties who want to send the application to their voters, who have decided to go against — they don’t trust his judgement — he will not reimburse them. He has federal CARES Act money that is intended for elections, and he is withholding it. It’s like he’s taking the ball and running home and not playing. If they’re not going to play what he wants to play, he’s going to go and take his ball — and take the money, and that’s a terrible thing and that’s a form of voter suppression because there are more counties than the two that want to send out the applications, and the voters want them sent out. But he’s withholding it. That’s a real problem.
DA: West Virginia continues to be plagued by people departing from the state, especially students. During your first time in office, you took some steps that you felt would improve accessibility in creating small businesses. Do you plan to continue similar initiatives if you were to return to office? How?
N.T.: Most certainly. Well, a couple things. Thanks for recognizing the Young Entrepreneurs Act. We based that off of what we did for veterans because if veterans are retiring and they have a skill and they want to start a small business, we waived the start-up fee and the first four years of the annual report. So, we did the same thing for young entrepreneurs who were 30 and younger. That told them, “Hey, come here. We’ll make this as easy as we can for you.” I think that’s important, to have policy in place like that.
The next step with that is, for the veteran side of it, I found that military spouses have some of the highest unemployment, like 31%, so that means, when their spouse is deployed somewhere, they follow them and go, but then they don’t have a job and when they try to get a job, [companies are] like “Oh, we don’t know how long you’re going to be here with your spouse, so we’re not going to employ you,” but they may want to start a small business. I want to expand that opportunity for veterans to the military spouse.
[What] I also want to expand, for younger people, is, I had started an online chat. You guys have probably used that before. You know how when you want to talk to a business like Microsoft or AT&T or something, instead of picking up the phone, you’re doing a chat with them on their website? I had an online chat like that in the Secretary of State’s office. We started in the business division then went to elections. I think that because of this COVID we are so now accustomed to someone sending us a link to a Zoom, clicking on it, and there we are and we’re talking with each other. I think that needs to be expanded. Certainly young professionals will catch on a whole lot faster than anybody else and so, instead of having to come to Charleston and drive hours, you just have that kind of one-on-one that you would have, so I’m contemplating that.
I think it’s important, the attitude and the way that you treat people — with dignity and decency. That’s why I was the first statewide elected official that implemented a non-discrimination policy in the Secretary of State’s office, kind of based off of ENDA (Employment Non-Discrimination Act). I implemented that and had the employees sign that, and I think that that shows we’re welcoming here.
The other thing is, by my modernizing and streamlining the office eight years ago or so, we saved money, and I wanted to save the businesses money. There was a transaction fee that, when they filed something online, it would charge a fee. I thought that was burdensome, so I absorbed it with the other savings that we were able to have by not having to do handwork that I took the fee off. He put the fee back on businesses. That’s not very welcoming, is it? So, that’s what I mean by — you can have these great big things that “Oh, look at us, look at us,” but it’s the other things that are really — like an online chat, a fee that you put back on — so those are ways that I’m working to make it welcoming.
DA: The state of voting has been a widely debated issue, especially due to the pandemic. You have said that, if elected, you would explore implementing ranked choice voting. Why?
N.T.: Because it’s what’s happening now, too. It’s what a lot of citizens are asking for. West Virginia doesn’t have an automatic runoff. What you can do, the best example, look at — I don’t know how it would do it with just two people — the attorney general’s race on the Democratic side was decided by 140? 170 votes statewide? If you had ranked choice voting, it maybe for more people, it gives people an opportunity to rank how they want to choose. It’s almost like a runoff within a race.
If you’ll remember, back in February or March, there was a delegate over in Morgan County who wanted to make the Supreme Court [of Appeals of West Virginia] races have runoffs — that if you didn’t win by 50% or more than you would go to a runoff. He started that way too late, I mean, he started it in February before a May election, but if you have ranked choice voting, then it’s that runoff within it. I think it is something to explore. I’m known for doing pilot projects, and that’s actually what’s happening across the country — that a city might do a ranked choice voting. I think it was in Santa Fe, New Mexico, that did ranked choice voting. Now, the whole state of Maine has ranked choice voting.
That’s the vision that you have to have, that you can see that I’ve had in the Secretary of State’s office from my eight years there. When I first implemented online voter registration — do we even talk about that anymore? No, because we just do it. We should not be talking about automatic voter registration. It should’ve been done four years ago, and it would just be part of the process, so now would be the time to look into ranked choice voting or explore risk-limiting audits to help secure elections even more.
These are election — I hate to say reforms but — election changes that just strengthen an election and strengthen the participation of the voter and the impact of the voter, even.
DA: Earlier this month, Warner said “It’s easy to vote and hard to cheat.” Do you agree with that statement?
N.T.: We can’t run elections on slogans. Let’s run elections on policy and accessibility. He’s making it harder to vote — we can see this. Tell me where he’s made it easier to vote when he’s changed it up on people. It’s just a slogan that he wants to say.
DA: Gov. Jim Justice recently announced a strategy that aims to increase broadband coverage in the state for nearly 120,000 homes through the removal of a financial cap. How important is an increased emphasis on broadband expansion over the coming years in relation to its impact on voting accessibility?
N.T.: It has a great impact. It’s an overall impact, and we see it now more than ever. That’s the key. I’m about technology — I’m an innovator using it — but you have to recognize what you can do. I mean, I was the first statewide official to do webcasts so that people could see; some people could see it easier than others because of that.
You can’t say we’re going to use this and take something away. I started online voter registration, but I didn’t remove the fact that you can still get a paper application to get registered to vote, and that’s what he’s done. He took away those applications that were sent to voters that they were anticipating. You can see some of the things that I’ve put in place that would benefit from the broadband. You go to the Secretary of State’s office, you go online and if you have a driver’s license or a state ID then you can apply to register to vote. Automatic voter registration really works through when you’re there at the DMV. The electronic registration information center that I put in place really is used for county clerks to be able to maintain voter rolls and double check and check against agencies and check against vital statistics and against other Secretary of State databases to see if someone is registered here or in Ohio or Maryland.
Broadband plays a major role in that, and especially — this is more of the business side — having online chat, but if I can expand it and use a Zoom, that’s so important for someone in Wirt County or Calhoun County, where they would always tell me “Look at that line just hanging there; Frontier didn’t bring it all the way in.” So they don’t have internet.
I usually look at it as an overall but, right now, you look at it as a barrier to voting. And the other thing: it’s not so much forcing, but it’s — this is [where] a blur of transparency comes into play. If like he’s doing “It’s easier than ever to be able to get a ballot” it’s like come on. That’s not being honest and that’s not being fair and it’s not really being transparent.