State in need of early voting for better elections

Published 7:00 pm Sunday, November 13, 2011

This past Tuesday provided a good view ofdemocracy in action, but the day’s election activities alsorevealed the potential for a big problem in the future if asolution is not found quickly.

    On the positive side, almost 50 percent of Lincoln County’s votersventured out to their polling places to cast ballots in this year’sgeneral election.

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    No doubt, a fair number of those voters were driven to the pollsbecause of the hot-button issue of personhood and an attempt tolimit abortion through a proposed constitutional amendment that wasultimately rejected by the electorate. The fact that the personhoodinitiative and two other proposed amendments – one on voter ID andanother on eminent domain – endured the lengthy and complicatedprocess to get on the ballot was in and of itself a great exampleof citizen involvement in government.

    On a side note, the fact that a turnout of 50 percent of the votingpublic is seen as a noteworthy success is a little dishearteninggiven that the opportunity to vote and elect our leaders is one ofthis country’s most sacred rights.

    Many are prone to grumble and complain about our government andleaders, but only every other one of us bothered to do somethingabout it on Tuesday. For that reason, any cheering about voterturnout is – at best – a bit muffled.

    What Tuesday’s turnout did produce in a number of precincts waslong lines of people waiting to vote. Waits of 20 minutes or sowere fairly common in some places, with delays of 45 minutes orlonger during busier times.

    Election officials mobilized to set up more voting machines whenlines got long. For example, Old Brook and Enterprise were twoprecincts that received more machines later in the day Tuesday.

    The long lines potentially turned some voters away, and others mayhave chosen to avoid potential waits altogether by voting absentee.Of the 12,644 votes cast in the general election in Lincoln County,940 were via absentee ballot.

    Unlike votes cast by machine on election day, absentee votingutilizes paper ballots. Certainly, many of those absentee ballotswere due to legitimate reasons. But it’s reasonable to assume thata number of them were cast by people who just didn’t want to dealwith going to the polls on election day.

    In the future, memories of the long lines of Tuesday could driveother people to vote absentee in upcoming elections. That,unfortunately, will only exacerbate a problem that reared its uglyhead three times during this year’s two primaries and generalelection.

    Ideally, elections are like a well-oiled machine – with only theoccasional minor glitch here and there. But paper ballots put thebrakes on vote counting and often stall the processindefinitely.

    One reason is the inability of some voters to properly mark theirballots.

    Ballot instructions clearly advise to darken the oval space next tothe preferred candidate’s name, but Xs or check marks arecommonplace on some absentee ballots. Election officials then haveto address the ballot problem in some manner, which slows thevote-counting process.

    Another problem that arose for the general election resulted from afailure to include budget impact estimates related to the threeproposed constitutional amendments when the paper ballots wereprinted.

    After ballots were ordered reprinted by Secretary of State DelbertHosemann, there were local paper-related issues between the old andnew ballots that made many of them unscannable by thevote-tabulating machine. These ballots had to be transferred toscannable ballots Tuesday night, thus further slowing the processof vote counting. As a result, votes weren’t tabulated until around3 a.m. Wednesday – more than five hours after the electronicballots had been counted.

    The solution to the problem, as we have stated before, is tominimize the need for paper absentee ballots altogether. Hosemannhas also raised potential fraud-related concerns about the numberof absentee ballots being cast in some counties, and that isanother good reason to move away from paper ballots.

    For military personnel overseas and those who are homebound, paperabsentee ballots will remain a necessity.

    In other cases, though, the best solution to increase voterconvenience and counting speed is early voting via electronicmeans. In a controlled environment, such as the circuit clerk’soffice, citizens could come and vote early on a touch-screenmachine the same way that they would if they were to go to theirregular voting precinct on election day.

    To become reality, early voting would first need the blessing ofstate legislators and then the U.S. Department of Justice. Aprovision for early voting – included as part of a compromise onvoter ID – failed a few years ago, but it is past time for theissue to be revisited.

    When people want to know election results, time is of the essence.The benefits of early voting will speed up the vote-countingprocess for election officials, candidates and all who areinterested in the outcomes.