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Challenger contests Secretary of State's record

Secretary of State Natalie Tennant defended her record against criticisms from Republican challenger Brian Savilla during a meeting with Daily Mail editors Thursday.

Savilla faulted Tennant for failing to take firm stances on several issues - including whether to remove convicted felons from the ballot in the May primary - and mistakes he said her office had made in the past year.

But Tennant defended her actions, saying she has followed the law and applied it equally in her ballot decisions.

Tennant, a Democrat, has served as Secretary of State since 2008. Savilla has represented Mason and Putnam counties in the House of Delegates since 2010.

Tennant, who is 44 and married to Sen. Erik Wells, D-Kanawha, said she has worked over the past four years to make the office more transparent and accountable to the people of West Virginia.

She also said her staff has made great strides in the business and licensing division to make it easier for West Virginia businesses to make regular filings online.

Savilla, a 30-year-old Mason County resident, acknowledged the progress Tennant has made in the business and licensing division but said she has made several bad calls when it comes to elections.

He cited convicted felons Jerry Weaver and Keith Judd, who were allowed to file to run in the May primary, despite state constitutional language designed to keep felons off the ballot.

Weaver filed to run for Lincoln County sheriff but eventually bowed out before the election due to party pressure. Judd infamously garnered more than 40 percent of the vote against President Barack Obama in the West Virginia Democratic primary, despite the fact that he was behind bars in a Texas federal prison.

Savilla said Tennant should have denied Judd's request to be on the ballot and the election result made the state "the laughingstock of the nation."

Tennant pointed out that Republican Secretary of State Betty Ireland allowed Judd to run as a write-in candidate for president in 2008. Tennant said Judd legally had a right to be on the ballot, and she didn't think she had the responsibility to warn the public he was a felon.

"This is where the debate comes back and forth: What is the responsibility of the filer of candidates?" she said.

She said she didn't know how a line could be drawn between pointing out that one candidate had a criminal past while another might be delinquent on child support payments.

She said the press had a responsibility to inform voters about candidates on the ballot as well.

Savilla said Tennant should have been more proactive to introduce legislation to reform the way candidates could get on the ballot.

"What we can do is take the steps that Virginia has taken to say you have to have so many signatures to be on the ballot," Savilla said.

He also said she could have either introduced a bill or proposed amending the state constitution to prevent convicted felons like Weaver from running for local office.

Tennant countered by saying that while Savilla likes to point out things he believes she did wrong, he has not sponsored any legislation to address any of the problems he points out.

"You can't sit on the sidelines," she said to Savilla. "You did not put your name on one piece of legislation that would have done anything in the Jerry Weaver case."

Tennant said she has worked with the Legislature to make elections more open and accessible to West Virginia voters.

"There have been mistakes, and I take full responsibility," she said. "But at the same time, we have moved mountains."

She said her office has faced unprecedented challenges in recent years following the death of Sen. Robert Byrd.

With the help of the Legislature and county officials, she said her office was able to organize a special statewide primary and general election process within 30 to 90 days of Byrd's death.

Meanwhile, she said the fraud division was investigating absentee ballot problems that occurred in the 2010 Lincoln County primary.

"And you see what that resulted in, with more convictions and more investigations during my term than by any other secretary of state," she said.

The two also differed on the issue of voter ID.

Savilla said he was "100 percent" for requiring voters to show a photo ID to verify their identity at the ballot box.

Tennant said she also supported voter ID efforts - the measures already in place in this state.

"I am for voter ID - we have voter ID in West Virginia," she said, pointing out that people have to present valid identification to register to vote and then confirm their identity by signing poll books on election day.

But she said that since 100,000 West Virginians do not have driver's licenses, a photo ID requirement would be problematic.

The two also split on the issue of allowing satellite early voting locations in counties.

"It is working across the state," Tennant said, citing successful efforts in Jackson and Wood counties in recent elections.

"I'm not a big fan of it," Savilla said. He said having remote voting locations opens up potential security issues.

"We've gotten to a point in today's world where we're more about ease than protection," he said. "We should not open (the system) up to more potential fraud."

Contact writer Jared Hunt at jared.hunt@dailymail.com or 304-348-5148.


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