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Legislative leader of early voting/photo ID bill tangles with election officials over cost estimates

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 7, 2010 - With a week left to go in this legislative session, tensions are rising over the fate of pending bills. Among them: state Rep. John Diehl's measure that meshes a short window of no-fault absentee voting with a requirement that Missouri voters show a government-issued photo ID.

Diehl, R-Town and Country and former chairman of the St. Louis County Election Board, is concerned about some cost estimates being submitted by local election jurisdictions, which he alleged are being encouraged by his measure's Democratic critics to beef up the early-voting projected costs to hurt the bill's chances.

The bill has passed the House and is now in the Senate.

Legislative Democrats, and Secretary of State Robin Carnahan, have been critical of the requirement to require government-issued photo IDs, saying that would disenfranchise tens of thousands of Missouri voters without a drivers license or the documents, such as a birth certificate, to get a government-issued photo ID. They support early voting, although some Democratic legislatives say Diehl's bill doesn't allow a long enough window to cast such ballots.

Diehl particularly zeroes in on St. Louis County, where Democratic elections director Joe Donahue has submitted to the state a cost estimate of $1.3 million for the additional expenses of early voting.

That estimate includes 14 additional fulltime employees -- at an annual cost of $621,590 -- plus 42 part-time workers at a cost of $108,000; $212,000 for software; and $183,000 to operate and equip one satellite site.

Diehl, who ran the county's elections for four years, contends the county's estimate is way out of line.

A typical countywide election, with more than 4,000 employees, costs up to $1 million, he said. The 2008 election, with far more polling places and workers, was $2 million.

Diehl also noted that the projected statewide cost estimate, compiled by Carnahan and state Auditor Susan Montee, was only $800,000 for a now-defunct initiative-petition drive that sought to ask voters this fall to approve no-fault absentee voting in the state. Missouri now allows absentee voting, but such voters are supposed to meet certain requirements.

Donahue replied Friday that the $1.3 million cost estimate, submitted last week, was based on the belief that there would be 21 days of early voting.

At the moment, Diehl's proposal -- which has passed the House and is now in the Senate -- would allow only 3 1/2 days of early voting.

"We're massaging the numbers," Donahue said, explaining that he and GOP elections director Joe Goeke are coming up with a much smaller revised estimate to submit to state election officials on Monday.

But Donahue emphasized that some additional costs are justified. If the government-issued photo ID requirement becomes law, he estimates that 25,000 county voters -- or 5 percent of a typical general-election turnout of at least 500,000 voters -- would likely show up at the polls without proper ID and file provisional ballots, which would be counted if the voter's status is later verified.

Donahue estimates the county would have to hire 15 temporary workers who would likely need at least two weeks to go through those ballots and determine their validity.

When asked, Donahue added that "we got no pressure from the secretary of state's office" to beef up the county's cost estimates for early voting or photo IDs.

Later, a spokeswoman for the secretary of state's office said that the office, since it oversees elections throughout the state, always has frequent discussions with local election officials over a variety of issues. In this case, such talks have been to ensure that the cost estimates are accurate, she said.

"We have been in regular contact with local election authorities about this bill," said spokeswoman Laura Egerdal. "It's important that the taxpayers know the cost of this legislation."

The state Senate already has trimmed some of the secretary of state's estimated costs to publicize any changes in voting procedures.

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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