The following is a slightly edited version of the award presentation speech by WV CAG Project Manager, Julie Archer:
Last but not least, it is my pleasure to be able to present the Si Galperin In Defense of Democracy Award to Natalie Tennant.
If memory serves me, I first met Natalie in 2006 when my former co-worker, Ted Boettner, whom many of you know, was running for the House of Delegates. That year, Natalie’s husband, Erik Wells, was running for the State Senate. I was Ted’s campaign treasurer, and we spent time together canvassing neighborhoods in the Kanawha Valley. Fast forward two years, when Natalie ran for Secretary of State. I remember doing numerous honk and waves with Natalie and Rosemary Lockhart, who worked on Natalie’s campaign and later served on CAG’s board of directors. But more important than that, as a candidate, Natalie took an interest in the work we were doing with our partners and allies in the WV Citizens for Clean Elections coalition to increase transparency and accountability in WV elections, and to give everyday West Virginians a great voice in the political process. It meant a lot to the organization, and our lead staff person in this effort meant a lot to me personally. I recall one particular meeting at the Citizen Action office, that Si, who was the coalition’s lobbyist at the time, as well as a personal mentor, attended not long before his passing. One of the things Natalie and Si have in common is deep and strong commitment to public service.
During her first term in office, as the scope of our work broadened from campaign finance and reducing the influence of special interests that try to buy our elections, to include expanding voter registration and removing barriers to the ballot box, Natalie [in sharp contrast to our current Secretary of State] was always with us, even when the county clerks, who sadly are often our foes, where not. It was during her tenure that the state established online voter registration, and she was instrumental in making WV the third state in the country to adopt automatic voter registration, an innovative policy that makes it more convenient to register to vote – although sadly this achievement has been severely undermined by her successor.
When control of the Legislature shifted in her second term, Natalie stood with us through major fights opposing voter ID legislation and multiple attempts to bring more money and less transparency into WV elections.
In 2017, Natalie joined the Brennan Center for Justice, which has been a critically important and helpful resource to us over the years, as Manager of State Advocacy for Voting Rights and Elections. She continued to represent WV well as she traveled the country working to expand and improve voter registration opportunities and testifying before congressional committees and state legislative committees about the importance of improving the election process and access to voting. During her time with the Brennan Center, where she still serves as a consultant on voting rights, she has continued to give generously of her time to share her knowledge and expertise to efforts to protect and improve ballot access for West Virginians.
During the 2021 legislative session, Natalie worked with us to defeat a bill that would have eliminated the most popular days of early voting and allowed county clerks and the Secretary of State to start the process of removing registered voters from the polls after missing one election. This was a significant victory as a public hearing on the bill drew support from several prominent Republicans who helped perpetuate lies about widespread voter fraud and aided and abetted former President Donald Trump’s effort to overturn the 2020 election.
Through the remainder of the year, Natalie always answered the call anytime we asked her to speak or participate in events as we worked to pass federal legislation to clean up our political system, end gerrymandering, counter the power of big money in politics, and expand and protect voting rights. Even though she is a prominent figure used to the limelight, she didn’t need to be front and center. She was glad just to show up, hold signs and banners, and stand shoulder to shoulder with us in the fight.
With the serious and ongoing threats to our democracy, we are extremely grateful that Natalie continues to lend her voice and speak out about the critical need to safeguard our elections from subversion and sabotage, and protect the freedom to vote for all Americans.
Natalie is currently serving as a Resident Fellow at Harvard University’s Institute of Politics where she is sharing her knowledge and experience with students and emerging leaders exploring important public issues related to political and civic engagement, so she’s unable to be here with us this evening. Erik is here to accept the award on her behalf.
Please join me in congratulating an outstanding ally and friend, and this year’s Si Galperin In Defense of Democracy Award recipient, Natalie Tennant.