Election reform bill clears legislature, heads to governor

Friday, May 17, 2002

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- An election reform bill two years in the making is finally awaiting Gov. Bob Holden's signature.

Though not as sweeping as some supporters would have liked, the measure is free of questionable provisions and would improve Missouri elections, according to Secretary of State Matt Blunt

"It meets the two criteria we had for reform," Blunt said. "It makes it easier for people to participate and more difficult for people to manipulate the process."

Blunt, a Republican, and lawmakers of both parties had been pushing for election changes to address allegations of widespread voter fraud in St. Louis during the 2000 general election, as well as claims that eligible voters were turned away in some instances.

The Senate passed the measure 31-0 on Thursday after the House endorsed the bill 153-1 on Wednesday. The Democratic governor's staff will examine the final version in the coming weeks, but Holden is expected to sign it.

Although he hadn't had a chance to review the latest 92-page version of the bill, Cape Girardeau County Clerk Rodney Miller said it would likely lead to improvements. The changes would take effect for the November elections.

Provisional voting kept

A key section of the bill would allow for provisional voting during primary and general elections. Under provisional voting, if a person's voter registration is questioned at a polling place, they would still be allowed to cast a ballot, which would be set aside pending verification.

Miller said the number of provisional votes could be significant in urban areas, but would cause little trouble for outstate election officials.

"It will cause some delays and issues," Miller said. "But if that is the way the bill came out, we are going to accept it as part of our jobs and do it."

Butler County Clerk John Dunivan said provisional votes could put an election's result in doubt in the case of a tight race. "If you only have one or two, that's fine," Dunivan said. "If you have 50 or 60 in a close election, it could be a day, week or month until you find out who won."

Early voting scrapped

Dunivan was disappointed that another concept he strongly endorses -- early voting -- failed to make the final cut. As its name indicates, early voting would have allowed for ballots to be cast in advance of Election Day. Dunivan believes it would substantially boost voter participation.

Lawmakers pulled that section out of concern that is would be too expensive to the state, which would have picked up the tab.

"I understand there is a cost and some jurisdictions don't have the manpower," Dunivan said. "But we have to do something. The percentage of voters is steadily declining."

The bill would require county clerks to submit early voting plans, including their costs, to the secretary of state. Blunt said the information would serve as the basis for future early voting legislation.

Tough anti-fraud proposals also were pulled from the measure. Those included giving Blunt's office the subpoena power during fraud investigations and authorizing the attorney general to prosecute such cases if local prosecutors choose not to.

And while the legislation would force voters to show some other type of identification in addition to their voter registration card at the polling place, a picture ID wouldn't be required. Accepted identification would include a driver's license, paycheck stub or utility bill bearing the voter's name. While most Missourians carry a photo ID, some lawmakers worried requiring one to vote would disenfranchise elderly and disabled voters who don't drive.

"Certainly, we could have done something to take care of those people," Blunt said. "I think in the future we will. This is an important first step."

A provision added by the House proposes holding Missouri's presidential primary in February instead of March. Supporters said the earlier election would garner the state more attention during the early stages of the candidate selection process.

The bill is SB 675.

mpowers@semissourian.com

(573) 635-4608

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