Should Wisconsin allow more early voting?

    Early voting is a trend that has caught on all across the country. Governing Magazine goes so far as to say, "The traditional precinct election, where everyone shows up on the appointed day, is in the process of decline."

    Wisconsin election officials want your input about our state expanding early voting opportunities. The Wisconsin Government Accountability Board (GAB) is asking for opinions from local election officials and the general public during a series of summer listening sessions about the possible implementation of early voting measures for the 2010 elections.

    Currently in Wisconsin, as in many other states, voters can cast ballots early with relative ease by using absentee ballots. A voter simply needs to request an absentee ballot. No reason or explanation is necessary.

    A report produced by the GAB during March 2009 suggested three possible options for modifying Wisconsin’s absentee ballot process:
    1) Regional Districts comprised of counties and/or municipalities would conduct early voting at designated locations.  The GAB believes this option would offer uniform access for early voters. However, it would profoundly change Wisconsin’s system of municipality-controlled elections.
    2) Municipalities would have the option of adopting early voting. The GAB says this would offer maximum flexibility for municipalities, however would reduce statewide uniformity. Under this option, traditional forms of absentee voting would continue.
    3) Absentee balloting would be streamlined. No absentee application would be required. Instead of placing the ballot in an envelope, the ballot would be placed in a secure carrier, to be fed into a voting machine and tabulated on Election Day.

    The GAB studied other states with early voting procedures to determine what works best and has suggested these practices be considered in Wisconsin:

    Beginning early voting about 20 days before an election and ending at least three days before Election Day giving officials time to prepare for Election Day.

    Setting minimum hours at permanent early vote locations that can be extended at the discretion of election officials, with some Saturday hours being required and Sunday hours being optional.

    Staffing early voting locations just like the polls on Election Day, having Electronic poll lists to prevent duplicate voting, and using Direct Recording Equipment systems that eliminate the need for paper ballots.

    The GAB says, "True early voting allows the elector to complete and cast a ballot immediately by placing it in a tabulation machine. Early voting would significantly reduce the need for absentee applications and envelopes. Objectives of early voting, according to the GAB include increasing voter satisfaction by reducing lines, maintaining the integrity of the vote-counting process, relieving the workload of local elections officials, and controlling costs."

    A report by the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project is cited by the GAB that advocates early voting in-person versus absentee voting in-person or by mail. The GAB says the Caltech/MIT report raised worries about absentee and mail-in voting including the potential for voters being coerced because privacy could be compromised, for example, by family or staff at a nursing home. There are also concerns about mail security and voter fraud. The possibility of uncounted, unmarked, or spoiled absentee ballots was also mentioned in the report.

    There are negative aspects to early voting. Some studies, according to the GAB, also suggest in-person early voting increases turnout only slightly, if at all. Florida experienced numerous technical problems with its optical scan machines used during 2004. Early vote centers in the Sunshine State have experienced long lines and emergency extension of voting hours.

    We can’t forget the cost. The GAB says, “Early voting will cost more. It is very difficult to generalize how much it costs, because different states pay poll workers different amounts, have different hours, and a different number of locations. One study found that ‘early voting required considerably more staffing than traditional precinct voting’. States and localities with outmoded voting machines may have to purchase new ones capable of processing dozens or hundreds of different ballot styles. Studies confirm that early in-person voting and liberalized absentee balloting do not clearly result in cost saving.”

    GAB listening sessions about early voting include July 22, 2009, at the Kenosha County Center, Hearing Room, Kenosha, with a Clerks meeting from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. followed by the public meeting from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., and July 23, 2009 at West Allis City Hall, Common Council Meeting Room, West Allis, with a Clerks meeting from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. followed by the public meeting from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.

    Comments from the public may also be submitted to the GAB by e-mailing the following address: An early voting process that has been recommended for the spring 2010 election could be considered during the current legislative session. So your opinion is critical.

    An early voting system has the potential of catching on and becoming popular. However, if such a system were to be implemented, every precaution must be taken to prevent fraud. As for me, one of the best changes we could and should make to our election process is to require a photo ID to vote.

    State Sen. Mary Lazich (R-New Berlin) represents Wisconsin’s 28th District.

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