Mo. bill would set deadline to finish ballots

Monday, December 8, 2014

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- A Missouri lawmaker has filed legislation intended to save the state thousands of dollars on elections by setting deadlines for altering proposals on the ballot.

State Sen. Will Kraus, a Lee's Summit Republican running for secretary of state in 2016, drafted a bill that would set a deadline of eight weeks before an election to make changes to ballot initiatives or referendum, about two weeks earlier than the generally accepted standard.

Current law permits the measures to be finalized at any point within 180 days of an election. Absentee and military ballots must go out about six weeks early, and that has become an accepted cutoff for final revisions. Some clerks, however, say that's not enough of a buffer to prevent last-minute scrambling and unnecessary expenses.

"It seems like every federal election year we always have a situation where [initiatives] go to court and then someone appeals it," said Kay Brown, president of the Missouri County Clerks' Association and Election Authorities. "It always puts county clerks in a difficult position."

Counties this year spent at least $705,000 reprinting ballots after a judge ruled in mid-September to alter the wording of a proposed constitutional amendment to create an early, no-excuses-needed voting period, according to early cost estimates from the secretary of state.

Some already started the process of making absentee and military ballots.

Greene County alone paid more than $50,000 for reprinting, clerk Richard Struckhoff said.

Carroll County Clerk Peggy McGaugh previously said the changes could cost $17,000 to redo her county's 7,000 ballots, on top of the original bill of $18,800.

The state picks up the bill for any reprinting costs, but counties will have to wait to be reimbursed.

"This money could be better spent," said Kraus, who last session served on a Senate election committee. "We're trying to identify reasonable expectations" for judges, he said.

Clerks said limits on when initiatives could be changed also could eliminate problems meeting deadlines to give ballots to voters.

Counties make a mad dash to prepare ballots in time for voting, Brown said, but at least in Christian County where she serves as clerk she'd rather delay printing ballots than risk high costs of reprinting for initiative changes she's come to expect.

Delays, such as the tweaks to the early voting initiative, can make it particularly difficult to meet the deadline for military ballots, she said.

Christian County printed copies of the military ballots in the clerk's office to send them out in time. Those documents will have to be reprinted later to run through counting machines.

"I don't think judges are aware of how tedious this is as far as trying to meet deadlines," Brown said.

Atchison County Clerk Susette Taylor said the legislation would be "absolutely helpful" to give clerks a set time when it will be safe to print.

Still, secretary of state spokeswoman Laura Swinford said lawmakers could prevent similar costs in the future by writing ballot initiative summaries that are not "insufficient."

The early voting proposal was sponsored by state Rep. Tony Dugger, R-Hartville. This week, he filed a similar bill to Kraus' that would place deadlines on changing ballot initiatives.

"We believe the best way to prevent this from happening again is, frankly, for lawmakers to not write misleading ballot language," Swinford said.

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