Republican lawmakers tie early voting in Mo. to photo ID debate

Monday, March 30, 2009

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- The state's top election official is pushing to allow people to vote weeks before Election Day. But some Republican lawmakers say early voting won't happen unless Democrats compromise on a proposal to require a state-issued photo identification to vote.

"The only way one is going through is with the other," said Sen. Matt Bartle, R-Lee's Summit. "The Republicans have figured out early voting is not good for them, and the Democrats have figured out that voter ID is not good for them."

Senate Democrats, who have stalled voter photo ID legislation in recent years, aren't budging.

"If that's the way the bill has to go forward, then it's not going to pass," said Democratic Sen. Rita Heard Days, the sponsor of the early voting bill.

To be sure, there are other concerns.

Republicans might be reluctant to give Democratic Secretary of State Robin Carnahan a legislative policy victory while she runs for U.S. Senate in 2010. Some election officials also worry about paying for what is essentially a convenience.

The proposal would allow for two weeks of early voting during federal elections, with a weeklong break before Election Day. Polls would be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on weekdays and until noon on Saturdays.

More than 30 states have some form of early voting, and roughly a third of voters nationwide cast ballots before Election Day in November. Missourians can vote before Election Day only by absentee ballots, which require a reason why they cannot show up in person.

Carnahan's office says no-excuse early voting doesn't necessarily increase overall voter turnout, but she said voters appreciate the flexibility.

"What you can say definitively is that voters like it and they use it," Carnahan said.

But Republican senators, who control that chamber by a 2-1 margin, say Democrats aren't doing themselves any favors regarding early voting, their top election priority, by opposing voter photo identification.

"In the climate that we've had the last two or three years, they fit together like hand and glove," said Sen. Delbert Scott, R-Lowry City, chairman of the Senate elections committee. "They're both voting reforms that make sense and ought to be done together."

Political scientist Peverill Squire said distrust between parties on election issues is common.

"Anytime there's a proposal to change the voting process, politicians are always going to look at it from a partisan perspective," he said. "Republicans are going to be nervous about anything that a Democrat proposes."

Squire, a professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia, said Carnahan's candidacy for the Senate might also factor into the early voting bill's slow progress.

"Certainly, Republicans are not anxious to give Carnahan a headline," he said.

Carnahan said her run for higher office -- which could give Democrats a filibusterproof majority in the U.S. Senate -- shouldn't be an issue.

"This isn't about me, it's about voters," she said. "I just want it to be a convenient, secure process. I would hope that's what is on the minds of legislators as they consider it as well."

She added: "The politics that everyone sort of injects in this is wrong and nonsense."

Lawmakers insist they're not focused on politics.

Early voting supporters point to seven-hour waiting times in Velda City in suburban St. Louis last November and lines of an hour or more in other urban areas.

"There were a lot of people standing in line, whether they were Democrats or Republicans," said Days, of St. Louis.

Republican House member Stanley Cox, of Sedalia, said the public's right to vote is too important to politicize. A lead sponsor of voter photo ID legislation, Cox says the proposal is a commonsense way to prevent fraud. He also said he would be interested in linking voter photo ID and early voting.

Former governor Matt Blunt, a Republican, supported an early voting measure when he was secretary of state from 2001 until 2005.

Members of both parties at the time said they were interested in early voting but worried it might be too expensive.

Like with previous attempts to pass early voting, cost is a concern this year -- especially because tax revenue has have fallen below budget projections.

Carnahan's office estimates early voting during the 2010 elections would cost the state about $750,000. That would pay for 17 satellite polling places, mostly in urban counties, and $373,000 in startup equipment.

But some rural election officials say their counties would also need satellite locations, potentially driving up the cost to $4 million.

"These are convenience items," said Cooper County Clerk Darryl Kempf, who also lobbies for the Missouri County Clerks Association. "Our main focus has always been, are you going to pay us to do these procedures?"

EDITOR'S NOTE -- Lee Logan covers state government and politics for The Associated Press.

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