To cast a ballot early in Missouri, voters need to come up with good excuses.
With no provision, technically, for advance voting, a physical disability, incarceration or being out of town on Election Day will suffice to obtain an absentee ballot.
But in 33 states and the District of Columbia, it’s easier. Casting a ballot early is an option for any voter who wants it.
Missouri voters will get the chance to join those states Nov. 4, when they decide on a proposed constitutional amendment authorizing a six-day, no excuses-needed early-voting period for future general elections.
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But there’s a catch: Even if voters sign off on the idea, Missouri lawmakers would have to vote to pay for it.
Republican lawmakers who control the General Assembly voted to place the question on the ballot, but they’ve been critical of the idea in the past. That’s led many to wonder whether the legislators would be willing to find funds for early voting in the often cash-strapped Missouri budget.
“I just don’t see the current legislature signing off on that type of expenditure,” said David Kimball, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. “Even if the amendment passes, it probably won’t bring us early voting any time soon.”
Early-voting laws became increasingly common after the disputed 2000 presidential election as a way to trim long Election Day lines that had frustrated voters.
But in recent years the issue has become mired in partisan politics.
Kimball said President Barack Obama’s use of early voting to get his supporters to the polls in 2008 and 2012 is fueling Republican opposition to the idea across the country. It created the perception that early voting increases turnout among Democratic-leaning demographic groups such as minorities and students.
“But for the most part,” Kimball said, “early voting makes things more convenient for people who very likely would have voted anyway.”
Republican lawmakers in Missouri have been lukewarm to the idea for years. As a result, Democrats began collecting signatures this year to place a six-week early-voting period on the ballot.
Fear of getting stuck with the Democratic early-voting plan forced Republican lawmakers to push through a proposal of their own, said Rep. Tony Dugger, a Republican from Hartville who sponsored the bill.
“We looked at the six-week early-voting proposal and decided it was just too much,” Dugger said. “Six days seemed like a better fit and a good compromise.”
The Democratic-backed proposal failed to garner enough signatures, leaving the six-day voting period as the only one on the November ballot.
Sen. Jolie Justus, a Democrat from Kansas City, doesn’t see the Republican-backed measure as a compromise. By restricting early voting to six days, and only weekdays during normal business hours, she said the effect will be minimal but the harm could be long-lasting.
“This isn’t real early voting,” she said. “It adds a couple extra days for someone who can go during the work day. It’s not early voting in anything other than name. My concern is the legislature will now say they’ve already addressed it and refuse to enact real early voting in the future.”
Critics of early voting in Missouri have typically focused on the cost. Opening polling stations early or setting up satellite locations on the weekend, they argue, are a costly burden on local election offices.
“When you throw early voting into the mix, you’re increasing the cost of elections and the workload on local offices,” said Dugger, a former county clerk.
If voters pass the early-voting measure, Dugger said he’s hopeful lawmakers will fund it.
“But we’ll have to sit down and take a look at the budget and figure out if we want to make it a priority,” he said.
Christian County Clerk Kay Brown, who serves as president of the Missouri Association of County Clerks and Election Authorities, said clerks don’t oppose early voting but do have concerns about the cost.
“Someone has to pay for it, and it would have a dramatic impact on the cost of running an election,” she said.
There’s no denying that there are additional costs associated with early voting, said Brian Newby, election commissioner for Johnson County, Kan. But he says the benefits far outweigh those costs.
“You have to look at advanced voting as a convenience for voters and a service we should provide,” he said. “There aren’t many things more important in government than elections, so the cost is relative.”
Newby said that Kansas has had early voting for two decades and that it has become “a way of life. We don’t see the push back here that you see in other states.”
Kansas voters can begin casting ballots by mail 20 days before an election. Local election authorities must allow early voting in person by the Tuesday before Election Day.
But some counties set up satellite voting sites and extend office hours into the weekend up to 20 days before the election. In Johnson County, for example, four sites will be open late and on Saturdays starting Oct. 20.
Newby said that in his county nearly half of all voters cast an early ballot in 2008. So though costs do rise with early voting, the expenses incurred on Election Day can be reduced.
“Our county’s population grew between elections, but we were able to reduce the number of polling places open on Election Day,” he said.
Missouri’s proposal probably doesn’t go far enough, Newby said, “but it seems to me that it’s at least a good start and will make it easier to move on to the next step. Once you create this, voters are going to want to find other ways to expand it.”