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Nancy Smith

Early Voting Has Started, But Please Don't

August 7, 2010 - 6:00pm

Early voting is one of those windmills I cant resist tilting at.

Its cast in stone, its now, its happening for the next 15 days, but I just have to make this one last charge at a 6-year-old civic travesty.

Supervisors of elections across the state love early voting. Mind you, they loved it more in 2001 when it was first introduced as an opt-in pilot project for willing counties. The state picked up the tab on that program. But today in cash-strapped 2010 the bloom should be fully off this particularly unattractive rose.

It isnt.

Allow me to present my seven-point case for the prosecution:

Early voting is redundant. We already had early voting had it in 2001, have it now. Its called absentee voting. When a voter asks for an absentee ballot, he doesnt have to swear on his mother's grave that he won't be in town on Election Day. He just has to ask for the ballot.

Early voting doesnt do the very thing it was invented to do, the thing legislators originally had predicted send folks flocking to the polls. While it's true, more people are voting early year after year, it doesn't mean more people overall are voting. Quite the opposite. Despite the vast voting window in 2002, during the pilot project, for example, participation all over the state was virtually unchanged. Only 55 percent of registered voters cast ballots statewide, one of the lowest percentages in recent elections.

The Division of Elections displays online a record of voter turnout in Florida since 1954. See for yourself. Except in 2008 when Barack Obama was elected, voter turnout generally was stronger in the years before early voting catered to Floridians need for convenience.

In the end, it's the race and the candidates that count. If an election captures voters' imaginations, a fully armed National Guard couldn't keep them from the polls.

Unfortunately, some people have the civic awareness of a pea. Those folks aren't going to vote no matter how early or how wide you open the poll doors. They barely know who is running.

Early voting has a price tag. And it can be a monster. Jennifer Krell Davis at the Florida Division of Elections told me its the counties that pay the early voting bill.

Lets look at that for a minute. The law states that one polling place must be opened per 100,000 population on each of the 15 days of early voting. And each polling place costs conservatively -- $7,020.

The figure of $7,020 in staffing costs for each location came from assuming three poll workers are paid $12 an hour for 13 hours a day for 15 days. Its a cost that could be lowered by supervisors using their staff to work early voting sites, or by paying poll workers less than $12 an hour, or by closing the site after, say, 10 hours instead of 13. But the bottom line is generally a larger number because of ancillary expenses at each location.

Counties are definitely feeling the pinch. In Broward County in 2008, the supervisor of elections fielded 17 early voting sites. This year, there are 11.

The distraction of early voting plain isn't worth it. Supervisors of elections could better spend the precious time just before an election concentrating on educating voters and preparing for an orderly Election Day.

Early voters are fresh out of luck if some 11th-hour revelation about a candidate or an issue sets them back on their heels a revelation that might have swayed their decision had they waited.

It happened in 2002 in Minnesota, an early-voting state, when Sen. Paul Wellstone, a Democrat, was killed days before the election. Those who voted for him early saw their votes negated and had no chance to re-vote. The loss of those votes might well have decided the election for Wellstone's successor.

Early voting is a greater convenience to political machines than it is to individual voters. Year after election year, news services are full of reports of machines rounding up people with phone calls, warning of alarming problems and sending them scurrying to vote on the basis of the moment, before all the information is available.

The net effect is to offer political parties and special interests a chance to manipulate, to lock up blocs of votes in advance of Election Day and to keep opposition parties and candidates from offering another viewpoint.

Information about candidates and issues crescendos. It builds, week upon week in an election season. Surveys have proven that voters absorb twice as much information about races on the ballot during the last week than in all the weeks leading up to Election Day.

What I expect to happen throughout the first week of early voting, at every news organization in Florida, is that early voters will phone or e-mail or drop in, asking somebody, anybody, to please describe or run down the issues so they can go vote.

Voters reckon, if early votings started, its over. Theres nothing more out there about the candidates to watch for, nothing more about an issue that could evolve. Nothing that could change their minds because, well, they're all through thinking about this election.

So, heres the bottom line, at least for me.

I dont care if early voting is the law. As long as I draw breath, Ill do everything I can to encourage voters not to cast a partially informed vote, instead to wait until the last words are spoken, the last information presented. I dont pretend to know what our Founding Fathers would think of early voting, but I do recall reading that they talked about Election Day and "Voting Day." Nowhere have I seen it written that Thomas Jefferson looked forward to a 15-day Election Season.

Considering, as a turnout motivator, early voting has flopped like a dead mullet, maybe its time to try something else. Alternatives might include changing voting day from a Tuesday to a weekend day, when people wouldn't have to face competition between employer and civic duty; or declaring Election Day a legal holiday for the purpose of voting.

Surely we can find a way to do the Day better.

Reach Nancy Smith at nsmith@sunshinestatenews.com, or at (850) 727-0859.

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