County clerks predict high voter turnout

Sunday, November 5, 2006

By RUDI KELLER

Southeast Missourian

A hotly contested U.S. Senate race and an emotional debate over stem cells should lead to a busy day at area polling places, area election officials said late Friday.

Absentee voting in the region is running well ahead of past off-year elections, leading officials to predict a strong turnout.

By Friday afternoon, more than 1,300 voters had cast absentee ballots with the Cape Girardeau County clerk's office, an almost 50 percent increase over the absentee turnout in 2002. Clerks in other area counties reported similar increases.

"We are having a heavy turnout for absentee voting," said Diane Holzum, Bollinger County clerk.

Bollinger County has the most contested races on the ballot, with Democrats challenging for control of three county offices, the 156th District Missouri House seat and a circuit judge race that also includes Cape Girardeau and Perry counties.

Turnout in Bollinger County could reach 45 percent of the registered voters, Holzum said. "Here it is mainly the contested races, and a lot of it would be the local races," she said.

Cape Girardeau County Clerk Rodney Miller said he expects up to 60 percent of the county's 50,000 registered voters to cast ballots, up from about 46 percent in 2002.

Voters on Tuesday will elect a U.S. senator, a state auditor, a U.S. representative from the 8th District, state representatives, county officials and judges as well as casting ballots on five statewide issues. Aside from Bollinger County, the only contested county race is in Cape Girardeau County, where three-term incumbent Presiding Commissioner Gerald Jones, a Republican, faces Democratic Party nominee Victor Farrow.

Area legislative races include contests for two open seats and a rematch of the 2004 election in the 159th District of southwest Cape Girardeau and Stoddard counties.

Missouri lawmakers enacted several changes to voting procedures this year in a bill attacked by minority-party Democrats as an attempt to tilt the election in favor of the GOP. Courts struck down a requirement that voters show a government-issued photo ID with a current address and expiration date.

The same bill eliminated straight-party voting, which allows a voters to make a single mark and registered a ballot in favor of all the candidates of a single party. Statewide, the change favored Republicans, but in Southeast Missouri, the elimination of straight-party voting eliminates a GOP edge.

In Cape Girardeau County, for example, Republicans captured 65 percent of the straight-party ballots cast in 2002. In 2004, straight-party voting helped propel Ben Lewis, a Republican, to the Division II circuit judge's seat over Democratic incumbent John Heisserer. Straight-party voting gave Lewis more than a 4,000 vote edge that evaporated to a 272-vote margin among all ballots. Lewis and Heisserer are competing again for a full six-year term on the bench.

When the change was approved, Democrats accused Republicans in the Missouri Legislature of attempting to help U.S. Sen. Jim Talent fend off the challenge of State Auditor Claire McCaskill.

"I thought it was politically motivated, and that seems to be the common thinking," said Miller, a Democrat who is retiring this year after 28 years in office. "Why out of the middle of nowhere do we do this?"

Miller has posted notices in every voting cubicle and in other places at each precinct to remind voters that there is no longer straight-party voting. Typically in each election, the most votes are counted for races at the top of the ballot, with as many as 25 percent fewer votes being cast for items at the end of the ballot such as constitutional amendments.

Holzum, a Republican, is also posting notices to remind voters that they must make a choice in each race rather than pick a party. Some absentee voters have groused about the change, she said.

"They are just angry about it," she said. "They don't like it and think it should have been left the way it was. I tell them it's the law, but I can understand how they feel about it."

With the striking of the voter ID law, past rules for proving identity at the polls will be used, Miller said. Acceptable identification includes the voter card mailed by the clerk's office, any ID with a photo, a Social Security card or a utility bill with a current address.

Voters who will be out of town on Tuesday may vote absentee Monday by going in person to their county clerk's office. Voters who have moved within their county may vote at their new address by notifying their county clerk's office Monday or Tuesday.

rkeller@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 126

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