Clerk opposes absentee voting changes

Wendy Noren says the proposed no-excuse absentee plan would be costly and inefficient.
Thursday, February 24, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 9:05 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

Since mid-January, both Gov. Matt Blunt and Secretary of State Robin Carnahan have announced no-excuse absentee voting proposals. The pending legislation is intended to give all voters — not just those who are unable to get to the polls on Election Day — six weeks to cast their ballots.

Boone County Clerk Wendy Noren, who administers elections locally, doesn’t support either plan. Her reasons are simple: She thinks local governments will bear increased costs, which will be high, mailed ballots are less efficient and accurate than voting in-person and components of the federal Help America Vote Act that must be implemented by Jan. 1 are not on track.

Saying she was “blindsided” by the proposals, Noren, who has been involved in Missouri elections for years, was surprised Blunt and Carnahan decided to support no-excuse absentee ballots.

On Jan. 19, Blunt announced his support for allowing absentee ballots to be cast without asking that voters attest to one of the currently required conditions: absence on Election Day from the place they are registered to vote, incapacity of confinement due to illness or physical disability, religious beliefs, employment as an election authority or incarceration. Carnahan followed suit last week with her “Advance Missouri” voting proposal, which also allows everyone to vote absentee.

Both plans would allow no-excuse voting in-person or by mail starting six weeks before an election, the same amount of time presently allowed for absentee voting. Carnahan’s plan adds some additional provisions not found in Blunt’s proposal. It requires that mail ballots be notarized, adds satellite voting locations in some counties two weeks before elections and prevents access to absentee voter lists before Election Day.

Noren called Carnahan’s plan “the same thing as the governor’s proposal” with only “minor differences.”

No-excuse absentee voting is being used in more than half of the 50 states. Its intent is to increase voter turnout, since the relatively short voting window on Election Day is seen as an obstacle for some voters.

“Having only one day to vote can be a real burden for those juggling the competing demands of work and family,” Carnahan said in the press release unveiling her plan.

Whether letting people vote early gets more people to the polls is questionable. Noren noted some studies indicating no-excuse absentee ballots have actually caused turnout to decrease. She cited two election studies, the Caltech/MIT report “Voting — What Is, What Could Be” and the Carter-Ford Commission Report on Federal Election Reform, that question the effectiveness of no-excuse absentee voting and recommend states move away from the practice.

Perhaps the biggest problem with the plans, according to Noren, is that the money just isn’t available.

“Neither the secretary of state nor the governor has addressed the funding problems with this,” she said. “They’re both trying to use previously obligated money to pay for this.”

Noren fears the increased costs will fall to local governments. Election costs in Boone County have already doubled in the last four years.

“The schools are paying for it, the county is paying for it, our municipality, our fire district — all of us are paying for it,” she said.

An additional problem with no-excuse absentee voting is the increased number of mail ballots the county clerk’s office would receive. In Noren’s experience, mail ballots are inefficient and must be tossed out more frequently than other votes. Whereas someone who votes in person can be in and out in 10 minutes, every mail absentee ballot takes at least half an hour for the election official to process, she said.

Noren remains an advocate of early voting, which allows people to come in to a site early to cast their votes. She thinks the in-person process is simple and efficient.

“The voter walks in, you process them and they’re gone,” she said.

Missouri should hold off on no-excuse absentee voting and focus only on in-person early voting, which Noren said provides convenience without the problems and costs of other methods.

For these reasons, Noren hopes neither the Blunt nor the Carnahan plan moves forward.

“I would hope the legislature does not pass either plan,” she said.

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