Hearing to define status of early voting

Monday, August 23, 2004

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- If Butler County Clerk John Dunivan had his druthers, he would open polling places in high-traffic areas such as stores weeks before Election Day in hopes of boosting voter participation by making it more convenient.

"If you are out at Wal-Mart buying tires for your car, maybe if you see a voting booth you'll stop and cast a ballot," Dunivan said.

Despite his staunch advocacy of early voting, however, Dunivan doesn't believe Missouri law currently allows it. If a court decides otherwise, Dunivan says his office is prepared to implement early voting prior to the Nov. 2 elections.

"I wouldn't need but about a week's notice -- and the state needs to send some money," Dunivan said.

On Thursday, Cole County Circuit Judge Richard Callahan will hold a hearing to determine if state law requires local election officials to provide voters with the opportunity to cast their ballots early.

St. Louis city brought the lawsuit earlier this month, claiming the legislature authorized early voting in an elections overhaul bill it passed in 2002. Secretary of State Matt Blunt, the target of the lawsuit, says such authorization was stripped from the final legislation that Gov. Bob Holden signed into law.

However, Blunt, a Republican running for governor against Democratic State Auditor Claire McCaskill, supports the concept of early voting and lobbied for its inclusion in the 2002 bill.

Spence Jackson, a spokesman for the secretary of state's office, said Blunt will continue to push for a law explicitly allowing early voting if he has the opportunity in the future.

"Matt is strong supporter of early voting, but the fact is the General Assembly has not authorized early voting," Jackson said. "As a consequence, no voters in the state will be able to take advantage of it."

Glenn Campbell, a spokesman for McCaskill's campaign, said she supports legislative action that would make voting more accessible and convenient.

Two-week window

The disputed law required county clerks to develop plans by Dec. 31, 2002, for implementing early voting in their jurisdictions. The law also limits early voting to general elections during presidential election years and sets a two-week window ending the Wednesday prior to Election Day for when advance ballots could be cast.

Attorneys for St. Louis and the other plaintiffs, which include voters and officeholders from around the state, contend those provisions show the legislature intended for early voting to take effect for the coming elections.

The attorney general's office, which is representing Blunt, argues the requirement that county clerks draft early voting plans stops short of authorizing the implementation of those plans. In a response to the lawsuit filed with the court, the state says the legislative history of the elections bill shows the city's conclusion is erroneous.

As originally drafted and passed by the Senate, the bill said "election authorities shall establish an advance voting period." It also put the burden of funding for early voting on the state and declared that early voting wouldn't take place if the legislature failed to appropriate money for that purpose.

The House of Representatives stripped the explicit requirement of an advance voting period and all references to funding from the bill and substituted the language requiring the early voting plans that was in the final version of the measure that became law.

At the time of the bill was being debated, Missouri was mired in a budget crisis and many lawmakers were concerned about finding the money to pay for early voting.

Early voting in Kansas

Several states have some version of early voting, including neighboring Kansas, which adopted the practice in 1995.

Brad Bryant, Kansas' state elections director, says early voting in his state works similar to absentee voting in Missouri, except that no reason, such as an expected absence from the voter's home county on Election Day, needs to be given for requesting an advance ballot.

"I think it has been really successful," Bryant said. "It is popular among voters. They like it. If nothing else, it's a convenience."

Although he doesn't conclude that early voting has brought more voters to the polls, Bryant does attribute it with helping keep turnout in Kansas steady during a period when voter participation has declined nationally.

In the 2000 and 2002 general elections, about 17 percent of all ballots in Kansas were cast early. Only about 4 percent of ballots were cast early in 1994, the last year the state had the absentee system.

Bryant said early voting is especially popular in urban areas. In Johnson County, which includes part of the Kansas City suburbs, 30 to 35 percent of votes typically are cast in advance.

Dunivan, the Butler County clerk, says he hopes Missouri will someday follow the lead of other states and implement early voting.

"Anything I can do as an election authority to get people to vote, I'll do it," Dunivan said.

The case is City of St. Louis, et al., v. Matt Blunt.


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