US Officials: Early voting could improve e-voting

Going to the polls before Election Day helps identify problems early

In what may be a low-tech answer to a high-tech issue, US election officials say early voting across the nation may have led to fewer Election Day e-voting problems in many states this year.

In Lexington, Kentucky, unprecedented long lines of voters at some polling places weren't caused by massive technical problems with e-voting hardware. Instead, the problem was simply a heavy crush of voters coupled with physical limits on just how fast people can vote. The result: delays of as long as three hours to vote, something the state has never seen before, said Les Fugate, a deputy assistant to Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson.

With US Election Day 2008 now over, the experiences of frustrated voters could soon usher in the adoption of early voting, which Fugate said could help reduce the crush of voters on Election Day and help future elections go smoother.

Already used in 31 US states, early voting allows voters to cast ballots up to a month or so before the actual election, taking the one-day pressure off what can be complicated or finicky e-voting systems. Some states allow voters to use mail-in absentee ballots prior to the election; others open one central polling place in each county for voters to cast ballots.

"Yes, we do think that early voting would reduce the lines on Election Day," Fugate said. "We typically don't see those kinds of lines."

Kentucky has recently been looking at joining the list of states that now allow early voting, but so far, elected officials haven't taken the plunge. Two weeks ago, the state held a hearing on the possibility, and last year, the state House approved a bill allowing early voting. That measure stalled in the state Senate.

Election day problems will likely refuel the discussion, he said. "The [long lines of voters] in the presidential election and the fact that more than 30 other states have it now, those factors will continue the interest" in early voting in Kentucky, Fugate said.

And such move would require a state constitutional amendment, making it unlikely to go before voters until the 2012 election, Grayson "would like to see it happen as soon as possible," Fugate said.

About 1.8 million, or 63 percent, of the state's 2.9 million registered voters cast their ballots Tuesday, compared to about 64.7 percent who voted in 2004, according to state figures.

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North of Kentucky, in Ohio, early voting is already allowed. And officials there credit it with helping that state's elections go more smoothly on Election Day.

Jeff Ortega, a spokesman for Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner, said that about 1.6 million voters cast their ballots before Election Day, which helped reduce lines and Election day pressures for state and local officials.

"It's clear that as more and more people discover the convenience of absentee voting ... that more and more people are making that the voting method of their choice," Ortega said. Reducing the number of voters in the state by 1.6 million on Election Day helped keep things moving more smoothly, he said, even though there were still lines of up to an hour in some places.

"Around that state, people were voting pretty much without any major incidents," he said. "Four years ago [when early voting wasn't allowed], there were delays of several hours at polling locations around the state. ...It stands to reason that [with early voting] there will be fewer people on Election Day, taking the pressure off the polls."

In Florida, where early voting also occurs, the program was seen as a success, said Jennifer Krell Davis, a spokeswoman for Florida Secretary of State Kurt S. Browning. "Every voter that was able to be processed before Election Day eased the process," Davis said. "We believe it helped."

This was the second presidential election in Florida that incorporated early voting since it began in 2004. "It was brand-new then," she said. "We believe that people are a lot more aware of it and used to it now."

About 2.6 million voters turned out for early voting this year out of about 8 million votes that were cast, or about a third of those who voted this year, Davis said. "We did have lines in urban areas, which we expected," but overall the early voting helped minimize problems.

Paul Gronke, director of The Early Voting Information Center, said that reports he's been hearing anecdotally since Tuesday's balloting indicate that "election officials believe early voting allows them to manage Election Day voting better."

Early voting helped in places like Georgia, where officials in at least one county were able to move voting equipment around to meet varying needs during the early voting period, Gronke said. "Having early voting allowed such fluid changes," he said.

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In other states, "the lines on Election Day were shorter than they thought they would be" because so many ballots had already been cast, he said. That was in contrast to states like New York, Pennsylvania and Missouri, which don't use early voting and suffered from long lines on Tuesday.

Gronke noted that early voting wasn't a complete panacea for states such as Ohio and Florida, which still had some reports of long lines. "Why didn't early voting allow them to manage better on Election Day?" he asked. "There are things you just can't plan for."

One reason the overall balloting appears to have gone relatively smoothly across the nation, Gronke said, is that "it wasn't that close" of an election in the presidential race.

"The warts still may be there [with the e-voting system], but we just may not be looking at them," he said.

Early voting, however, appears to be an important way to help improve the e-voting process, he said. "I think we're going to see some moves toward expanding early voting by 2012 [across the nation], particularly federal legislation. Hopefully, we can pull together some expertise to examine this."

Gronke has one warning, however. The rush to fix the nation's voting systems was like a tsunami after the 2000 presidential election, highlighted by that year's controversial punch card ballot problems in Florida and a US Supreme Court ruling that eventually decided the election.

Those reverberations are still being felt.

"In 2000, the need for reform in the voting systems meant moving fast and wasting hundreds of millions of dollars on new technologies," Gronke said. "That has slowed down since 2004, with more examination by the press and e-voting experts. I hope that continues on this [early voting] issue as well, so that no mistakes are made."