Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Break in State Elections Allows for Voting Law Study


by: Jack Elliott Jr., The Associated Press

Army Sgt. George Scheufele fills out an absentee ballot. Mississipians have decided to take a break from statewide elections to address concerns about the voting process. (Photo: John Moore / AP)

Mississippians take a break from statewide elections next year, and the breather will allow lawmakers to take a little more time to study proposals on early voting and perhaps reach a middle ground on voter ID, says one Senate leader.

Without a looming statewide campaign, says Senate Elections Committee chairman Terry Burton, there is no pressure to frantically slap together election reforms and rush them to Washington, D.C., for a Voting Rights Act review.

Municipal offices are on ballots across Mississippi in 2009 after two straight years of statewide elections.

Generally, such local elections result in less rancor than that accompanying statewide balloting.

"After every election there are concerns raised, possibilities mentioned and options offered. Thankfully next year we have municipal elections. The election commissioners, circuit clerks and others kind of get a break and can consider some of these things," says Burton.

The perennial issues remain - voter ID, absentee ballot fraud and voter intimidation.

Add to those, the prospect of early voting.

Presidential Preference

The presidential election showed the popularity of early voting, which allowed people to mail in ballots or vote in person days before the election. At least one-third of the nation's general-election ballots were cast that way, according to estimates.

But the process had its downside. Because so many voters wanted to cast early ballots, many people stood or sat or played cards in lines that lasted hours. In Florida, the governor ordered early polling places to stay open 12 hours a day instead of eight.

"There's problems with it in other states," Burton says. "We'll try to learn from their mistakes. We'll try to come with a way to make it work if we can and consider it."

Thirty states allow voters to cast their ballots early. Mississippi is not one of them.

In Mississippi, the only votes that can be cast early are absentee ballots. Voters can cast absentee ballots starting 45 days before an election, but only for certain reasons. They have to know that they'll be out of their home county on election day, for example, or they have to be disabled or older than 65. College students and members of the military often vote absentee.

A bill passed the House in 2007 that would have allowed Lafayette County - home to Oxford and the University of Mississippi - to experiment with early voting by opening regular voting machines at the circuit clerk's office from 25 days to four days before an election. People would not need a reason for voting early; they could simply go in and cast a ballot if they felt like it. The bill did not become law.

Neighboring Arkansas, Louisiana and Tennessee have allowed the practice for years. Alabama does not.

Backers say early voting makes the process easier and encourages higher participation.

The next statewide election in Mississippi is in 2011, which Burton says gives lawmakers 2009 and 2010 to reach some consensus.

"Just plain old making the election process what it should be - clean and easy and accessible - those are the type of things we'll be looking at between now and the next statewide election," he said.

Rep. Brandon Jones, D-Pascagoula, says he's preparing a bill for the 2009 session that would authorize early voting and require voter ID.

He said the bill would allow for no excuse early voting.

Jones said the voter ID proposal - long a topic of bitter debate in the Legislature - would be consistent with those in other Southeastern states.

"The bill would allow for free voting identification cards to be provided to voters without identification and would exempt voters who were of voting age prior to the Voting Rights Act of 1965," Jones said in a statement.


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