Carnahan to push for early voting

Thursday, November 6, 2008 | 3:43 p.m. CST

ST. LOUIS — Early voting proved popular around the country this year, and Missouri's top election official said Thursday she wants the state to follow suit.

Secretary of State Robin Carnahan said she will ask the legislature next year to adopt early voting. Nationwide, an estimated one-third of voters cast ballots before Tuesday, which proponents said led to reduced lines and quicker vote counts.

That wasn't always the case in Missouri. Velda City in suburban St. Louis saw lines of up to seven hours, and Election Day lines of an hour or more were common in urban areas. Ballots in some counties, including St. Louis and Jackson counties, weren't completely counted until well after midnight.

In a sense, Missouri already has early voting. Absentee voting is available for six weeks prior to the election, but those voters must explain why they can't vote on Election Day. Carnahan wants to retain absentee voting but also add a two-week early voting period, no excuse necessary, just prior to the election.

"It's clearly convenient for voters," Carnahan said. "It's been proven to be appreciated and well-used, as well as secure, in the 30-plus other states that have it." Seven of the eight states that border Missouri have early voting.

Calls seeking comment from Governor-elect Jay Nixon were not returned.

Missouri's current governor, Republican Matt Blunt, favors early voting, too. But earlier this year, the House Elections Committee rejected legislation for it. Rep. Bill Deeken, R-Jefferson City, a member of the committee who will seek the chairmanship, said Missouri doesn't need it, as long as the absentee voting system is tweaked.

"We've got early voting right now with the six weeks you can vote absentee," Deeken said. "What I would favor is the no-excuse absentee. Let's quit making people lie. I don't want to turn anybody down. We have enough trouble getting people to vote as it is."

Under Carnahan's plan, early voters would cast ballots at election headquarters, but also at satellite polling places in urban areas. Deeken opposes the opening of satellite pre-Election Day polling places, which would require finding additional election judges, finding additional space and transporting ballots back and forth.

"I think everything is done better if it's done in the clerk's office and locked up that night," Deeken said.

Sen. Kevin Engler, of Farmington, who was chosen by Republican colleagues Thursday as the chamber's floor leader, said he was open to adopting early voting — so long as the state provides money for local election officials to carry it out. Finding the money could be a challenge in what's expected to be a tight budget year.

In St. Louis County, Republican elections director Joseph Goeke said he favors early voting if some of the concerns like those raised by Deeken can be addressed. The county's Democratic director, Joseph Donahue, favors it. He estimates that up to 30 percent of the county's voters would cast a ballot before Election Day.

Carnahan said early voting is not a partisan issue. Although experts believe early voters tended to favor Democratic President-elect Barack Obama this year, Carnahan noted that in some areas Republicans benefited.

"To get this passed we'll need folks from both parties to go forward and recognize it's not done for some partisan advantage but because it's good for voters," Carnahan said.

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