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Early-voting advocates now collecting signatures to get proposal on next year's Missouri ballot

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 6, 2009 - After years of being stymied by the Legislature, Missouri advocates of early voting are taking to the streets.

Secretary of State Robin Carnahan's office just announced that it has approved an initiative petition that seeks to put the  proposal on next year's ballots. Supporters now must collect the necessary signatures by May 5. Based on a formula, they will need to collect at minimum 91,818 signatures from at least six of the state's nine congressional districts.

Here's how the ballot title now reads:

"Shall Missouri law be amended to:

• expand options for voters by allowing them to cast ballots in person prior to Election Day without the current absentee ballot excuse requirement; and

• make it illegal to cast such an early ballot and to vote at the polls for the same election?"

The fiscal impact statement, which comes from the state auditor's office, estimates that the additional cost of early voting would amount to "$1,167,450 in fiscal year 2012 (one-time costs of $705,000 and on-going costs for each federal election of $462,450).

Local governmental entities may incur additional costs for non-federal elections and satellite voting sites depending on the decisions of the election authority."

For at least a decade, various politicians in both parties have advocated changing Missouri law to allow people to cast early ballots for any reason before Election Day. More than 30 states already do so.

Currently, Missourians can vote early by absentee ballot, but they can do so only if their circumstance meets one of the allowed reasons under state law. However, political activists on both sides suspect that some absentee voters lie -- but nobody has ever been prosecuted in Missouri for doing so.

Republican Matt Blunt supported early voting while he was secretary of state, but he backed off when he became governor -- in part, because of pressure from Republican legislative leaders and groups who had perceived that early voting would primarily help Democrats. That reasoning is based on the fact that the strongest support for early voting has been in Missouri's Democratic-leaning urban areas and swing suburbs.

St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, a Democrat and strong advocate of early voting, even went to court a few years ago in a failed bid to force the state to allow local election officials to, at minimum, allow no-fault absentee voting

Secretary of State Robin Carnahan, a Democrat, also supports early voting and has sought to dispel the GOP argument by citing statistics from various Missouri elections that indicate both parties would benefit. 

But opposition also has developed among many local Missouri election officials -- generally county clerks in rural areas -- who are concerned about the added cost of early voting. That cost argument has taken on more weight during the current economic downtown which has cash-strapped state and local governments.

In any case, even if early-voting advocates get enough signatures to get their proposal on next year's ballot, and it gets approved, no-fault early voting wouldn't be in place by November 2010 -- when Carnahan is likely to be on the ballot as the Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate.

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.

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