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|No Need to Vote So Early and Often|
With all the new blood and fresh ideas in the Louisiana Legislature, it's time the state breaks some bad habits about voting so early and often.
No other state holds so many elections in a year or leaves its polls open more hours in a day. Whether those distinctions top a good list or a bad one has sparked debate every time bills are offered to scale back the number or length of election days. Little has come of perennial efforts to change either, but things might go differently this year, starting in the mostly new House of Representatives.
The lower chamber has already passed legislation to get rid of the July election date, which is used for local propositions, only a few years after the previous Legislature dispensed with January elections.
A tougher road awaits the annual effort by Rep. Kay Katz, R-Monroe, to shorten the current 14-hour voting marathon that now lasts from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m., with at least an additional hour for voting commissioners to set up in the morning and shut down and report the results at night. Each year, along with the secretary of state and clerks of courts, Katz pleads for a break for over-worked commissioners, many of them senior citizens, whose numbers decline with each election cycle. And each year those pleas are rejected by legislators, who choose to continue the hardship on commissioners rather than inconvenience a handful of their constituents.
This year, Katz's House Bill 34 originally set poll hours from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., but she wisely accepted an amendment to keep the 8 p.m. close, which could make it passable.
The pre-7 a.m. vote accounts for about 5 percent of those cast, and it would be no big deal for the vast majority to come a few minutes later. Defenders of the status quo say the early start is needed for those working a 6 a.m.-6 p.m. shift or for weekend hunters and fishermen setting out before daybreak. Then there's the argument, which I don't get, about how senior citizens like to rise and vote early, as if they have a lot to do the rest of the day.
Yet, those groups of voters could be accommodated by two weeks of early voting, which has replaced the old one-week period for absentee voting. Early-voting bills in this session would keep registrars' offices open 90 minutes longer on those days, until 6 p.m., and would expand alternative polling sites, such as libraries and community centers.
Still, in the first minutes of debate on this bill, someone is going to say that this shouldn't be about voting commissioners but rather about doing nothing to discourage even a few people from voting.
Well, this is about voting commissioners and it's past time we did something for them. State and federal government have gone out of their way to encourage, cajole and entice people to register and to vote, from the motor-voter law to early voting to provisional voting to satellite voting and mail-in ballots. In recent years, civic groups and political campaigns have devoted unprecedented money, technology and manpower to get-out-the-vote efforts.
And what do they all have to show for it? Voter turnout continues on a stubborn downward trend, with only half of registered voters turning out in the last two gubernatorial elections, and barely 12 percent in some special legislative races.
On the other end, the declining pool of voting commissioners are being called upon more often to wait around all day for fewer and fewer voters. With a special congressional election and a riverboat referendum, seven elections will be held in East Baton Rouge Parish this year.
Passage of Katz's bill would lift the morale of precinct workers and probably their numbers also, more so than another pay raise or split-shift scheme. An hour shorter work day might not seem like much, unless you are lying in bed at 5 a.m. and not anxious to get on the road. At the age of many of our voting commissioners, which I rapidly approach, nothing is more precious than time.