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Voting too early isn 't good idea, legislators say

ATLANTA --- The popularity of early voting has been growing, especially in 2010, when fear of long lines from the increased turnout of young voters drove people to cast ballots ahead of Election Day.

But early voting isn't popular with everyone.

"I did hear on the campaign trail that there are a lot of counties that are complaining about the cost of the 45-day period," said Secretary of State Brian Kemp.

"Especially in these budget times, we understand that. I think there are some good things in the bill I do like."

It cost too much to man voting booths 45 days before an election, he said. And voters just trickle in the first few weeks anyway.

So support is building for House Bill 92, a bipartisan measure sponsored by Rep. Mark Hamilton, R-Cumming. It would trim the early-voting period from 45 days to three weeks.

Voters could still cast absentee ballots, and the measure requires at least one Saturday to be open.

Kemp, whose office supervises elections, has no problem with a shorter period as long as any qualified voter can cast a ballot.

"The counties can say if we shorten it, it will save money. That's fine," he said. "But they've also got to be willing to gear up during those three weeks, have more machines available or more parking or bigger space or whatever it takes to make the process accessible for our voters."

There's also the way early voting changes the dynamics of a campaign, notes Senate President Pro Tempore Tommie Williams.

"The campaign often doesn't get charged up until three weeks out," said Williams, R-Lyons.

"So you might change your mind if you learn more about the candidates."

Why not just end the need for runoffs? Most states decide elections based on who gets the most votes without requiring any candidate to get a majority.

"We have discussed that," Williams said, adding that the Republican caucus isn't eager to end runoffs. After all, two Republicans in the U.S. Senate and one GOP member of the Public Service Commission owe their elections to runoffs.

Nevertheless, Kemp and Williams have a predicament.

On one hand, they have what they see as sound reasons to reel in some of the early voting, but on the other they know they have to convince the U.S. Department of Justice that minority voters won't lose anything.

The federal Voting Rights Act of 1964 gives the federal government -- either through the Justice Department or the courts -- a veto over all changes in how elections are conducted in the states with a historical pattern of minority discrimination.

The Justice Department has always been a tough customer, but the Republicans running Georgia feel the Democrats in the Obama administration are even more skeptical.

That's why Williams and Kemp want the legislation curbing early voting to pass unanimously. A unified front would demonstrate to the feds that the change is OK with both parties and all races.

"I don't want anyone to get the perception that this is something the Republican secretary of state's trying to jam down somebody's throat," Kemp said.

"We want to work with all parties involved."

Hamilton got Democrats Keith Heard of Athens and Howard Mosby of Atlanta to join him as primary co-sponsors.

Both have been around the Capitol for years and could have the sway to bring other members of the Black Legislative Caucus and the Democratic Caucus with them.

The point they want to make to the Justice Department is that though it will reduce access to the polls, it does it uniformly, not just targeting minority voters.

This issue could be a prelude to this summer's battle over redistricting. Republicans hope that can be as harmonious as the consideration of Hamilton's bill, but that's not likely.

They'll have to send the new district maps for preclearance by the feds.

Because there will be definite winners and losers, the maps will surely be stained with the blood, sweat and tears of more than a few incumbents.

For now, in the early part of the session before the nasty fights have broken out, Kemp and Williams might get their unanimous support for Hamilton's bill -- or at least near enough to argue the point with the feds.

Web posted on Thursday, February 17, 2011

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