JEFFERSON CITY — Supporters of an early voting proposal say it would allow voters to cast their ballots more easily, but critics say that convenience could cost the state millions of dollars.
A House committee heard testimony Tuesday on a bill that 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.
Nationwide, an estimated one-third of voters cast early ballots for November's election.
In a sense, Missouri already has early voting. Absentee ballots are available for six weeks before the election.
But to vote absentee, people must sign affidavits saying they cannot vote on Election Day because of a physical disability, religious belief or because they will be away from their voting jurisdiction. Employment as an election authority at a different polling place or incarceration are also valid excuses.
Sponsoring Rep. Michael Corcoran, D-St. Ann, said his bill would allow people to vote early if they don't meet those qualifications.
"Fourteen days would take so much pressure off that one day of voting and would certainly make it more convenient for all voters," Corcoran said.
The bill would require at least 17 satellite polling places, mostly in urban counties, at an annual cost of about $200,000. An additional $550,000 in startup funds also would be required in the first year.
Secretary of State Robin Carnahan supports the proposal. Ron Berry, a lobbyist for Carnahan's office, said voters in the 35 states that allow early voting have liked the process. He said it has not increased turnout in those states but spread voting out over a longer period.
Besides the 17 satellite locations outlined in the bill, counties could choose to set up additional polling places. The state would reimburse them for the cost.
Cooper County Clerk Darryl Kempf told the committee his county would probably do just that. If other rural counties also set up satellite locations, he said, the bill's cost could jump to nearly $5 million.
Greene County Clerk Richard Struckhoff also told lawmakers to consider the cost.
"Does the state have the money for this convenience?" he asked.
Neither clerk took an official position on the legislation.
Despite the cost, some lawmakers said they're willing to implement early voting.
"When you narrow it down to a Tuesday, on a work day, it makes it very difficult," said Rep. Michael Brown, D-Kansas City. "A lot of folks just give up."
Rep. John Diehl, the former St. Louis County elections chairman, said he wasn't opposed to early voting but said most polling places in his area didn't have long lines.
"The vast majority of polling places function just fine," said Diehl, R-Town and Country. "For the most part, the capacity is there on Election Day."
However, at least a few places in St. Louis County had long lines in November, most notably Velda City, where voters waited up to seven hours to cast their ballots. Corcoran also said St. Ann had lines of up to 400 people.
Under the bill, early voting would start a week after the voter registration deadline. Diehl said he would prefer that deadline be moved up or that early voting would start later to reduce the chances of registration fraud.
The bill also sets a 100-foot distance from a polling place in which a person is prohibited from electioneering. The current limit is 25 feet.
Some lawmakers said a longer limit could push people off the site of a polling place. Corcoran said he wanted to give voters more security but would be willing to consider a lower limit.