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Early-Voting Debate Takes On Partisan Tone in Missouri

St. Louis politicians sue to open polls two weeks before election, a move that could hurt Bush.

August 14, 2004|Stephanie Simon | Times Staff Writer

ST. LOUIS — The question sounds straightforward: Does state law allow this city to open a polling station two weeks before the Nov. 2 election so voters who might be busy that day can cast their ballots early?

But in the tangled knot of St. Louis election politics, nothing is that simple.

Especially not this year, when the debate over how city residents should vote has exploded into a nasty statewide squabble -- with implications for the presidential race in this pivotal swing state.

Last week, local politicians sued Secretary of State Matt Blunt in circuit court for the right to hold early voting in this heavily Democratic city. Mayor Francis G. Slay promised to pay for it, noting that the city had put aside $75,000 to open a polling center starting Oct. 19.

Blunt's response: No way. He insists that the state, by law, must cover all election expenses. Since the Legislature hasn't appropriated money for early voting, he says, it's illegal for the city of St. Louis to try it.

Here's where the impasse takes on partisan overtones.

Blunt, a Republican, is running for governor in what is expected to be a hard-fought race. He's also a close ally of President Bush. Vice President Dick Cheney and Bush's brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, have come to Missouri to campaign for him.

Slay, the Democratic mayor of St. Louis, is co-chairman of the national finance committee for Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, the Democratic presidential candidate.

Republicans contend that Democrats are trying to give their party an edge in state and national races by bending the rules to bring more city residents to the polls.

"It's very disheartening," said Spence Jackson, a spokesman for Blunt.

Democrats counter that Blunt has a vested interest in keeping down the number of votes cast in liberal St. Louis, because his strength lies in the Republican strongholds of rural and suburban Missouri.

"Matt Blunt says he favors early voting, except in this election, which I find very curious," said U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay, a Democrat who represents St. Louis. He wants early voting this fall not just in the city, but statewide.

As Clay points out, early voting is not a novel idea. At least 31 states allow some form of voting before election day.

California, for instance, permits voters to request permanent absentee status, which means they get mail-in ballots to complete at their leisure. In Texas, polling stations open 17 days before the election; any registered voter can use them. The state even allows curbside voting, in which precinct workers bring ballots to the sidewalk so disabled voters can fill them out without leaving their cars.

Georgia, in a primary last month, became the most recent state to try early voting. Polls opened five days before the election, drawing more than 70,000 voters (or about 6% of all who cast ballots in that election).

The nonpartisan Committee for the Study of the American Electorate has found that early voting does not appear to boost turnout. The group's director, Curtis Gans, disapproves of the practice on two grounds. Those who vote early miss out on the final twists and turns of the campaign -- and might find that by election day, they regret their vote, he said. Plus, allowing voters to trickle in to the polls over a week or two dilutes the sense of community that comes from bringing Americans together every two years.

"We essentially have two communal events left in American society: July 4th and the act of voting with your peers," Gans said. "We sacrifice that at our peril."

Those arguments haven't swayed most state elections officials, who have moved in recent years to expand opportunities to vote early.

"Our members tend to say: Look, this is 2004. Mom and Dad are both working. The easier we can make it for them to cast their ballots so they're not in a frenzy on election day, the better," said Meredith Imwalle, director of communications for the National Assn. of Secretaries of State.

When carried out statewide, early voting doesn't seem to favor one political party over another, said Doug Chapin, the director of Electionline.org, a nonprofit group that tracks voting reforms nationwide.

In Missouri, the concept of early voting was first promoted -- by Blunt, among others -- after the debacle of the 2000 general election. Four years ago, as now, Missouri was a closely contested state, with a tight race between George W. Bush and Al Gore, and close races for governor and senator.

The races sparked a huge voter turnout statewide -- and, in St. Louis, led to chaos. Thousands of city residents went to their regular polling stations only to find they had been removed from the voter rolls for failing to provide updated addresses. Many waited in line for hours to try to clear things up. Others gave up in frustration.

At the same time, more than 1,300 people voted illegally, ushered into the polls by judges who accepted their requests for ballots even though they admitted in sworn affidavits that they had not registered to vote, did not live in the city or were felons still on probation.

At the height of the confusion, Democrats sought -- and were granted -- a court order to keep the polls open an extra three hours in the city. Republicans appealed and won; the polls were shut down about an hour after the traditional 7 p.m. close.

Embarrassed and infuriated by the disorder, state legislators sought a way to ease congestion and confusion on election day. In 2002, they enacted a law requiring all counties to plan for early voting. Local officials in 116 jurisdictions duly submitted those plans. But only the city of St. Louis has requested permission to carry out its plan this fall.

"Voting doesn't have to be hard," Clay said. "All we're trying to do is make it easier."

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