May 9, 2013

Editorial: Early voting has pitfalls


---- — Early voting is a great idea — in concept. It might even increase voting, if it is executed wisely.

The state is considering a measure that would allow voting for up to 15 days before a general election and eight days before a primary or special election.

Under the plan, each county would establish four polling sites in the county, as well as the main Board of Elections office.

During the early-voting period, the polls would be open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. on weekdays and from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays.

Ballots would be collected each day and brought to the main office after the polls close, to be counted on election night.

Giving voters a two-week window to exercise their right would almost certainly boost participation because people wouldn’t be turned off by bad weather, illness or suddenly being called out of town on election day.

But the plan has some serious flaws.

Keeping four polling sites open every day for two weeks would require at least 16 poll workers. Local Board of Elections officials have lamented that it is hard enough to find workers for just one election day.

Those workers are not volunteers. They each earn $150 per day for a general election and $110 for a primary or special election. They also have to be trained, which costs $25 per worker.

The main elections offices would also have to be open later during the week and on weekends in order to collect ballots, racking up overtime costs.

All told, counties in our area could wind up paying about $60,000 to offer early voting. The state, by the way, has not offered one dime to offset the costs for the locals.

Sounds exactly like yet another unfunded mandate that local governments have been complaining about for decades.

Costs are not the only problem with the plan.

With polling sites in just four locations in each county, it would be more challenging to keep track of who has voted. Also, someone would have to figure which ballots to have on hand at each polling site.

If voters from Peru want to vote during their lunch hour at work, which happens to be in Champlain, the Northern Tier voting site must have Peru ballots. Would every site have to carry ballots from every town?

It seems to us that a method for early voting already exists in the form of absentee ballots. Those ballots require voters to sign an affidavit swearing that they are out of town on election day.

Why not just loosen the restrictions on casting absentee ballots and make them available for anyone up to 30 days before the election, as they are now.

That would create instant early voting at no cost. It would complicate counting ballots on election night, but if the kinks can be worked out, that’s a plan that would get our vote.