Frankfort, KY – When it comes to casting ballots prior to Election Day, Kentucky is one of the most restrictive states in the Union. Kentuckians are only allowed to vote early, through absentee ballots, if they have one of several permitted excuses. That's not the case in 35 states, including five surrounding states, which permit early voting. Secretary of State Trey Grayson wants Kentucky to follow suit, even though he admits early voting can alter the dynamics of political campaigns. "If there's a last minute surge by a candidate - if somebody's closing strong - well, a lot of the votes have already been cast. It also makes it, from a campaign standpoint, difficult to strategize. It used to be you wanted to peak on Election Day. Well, now if you peak on Election Day, that might be too late."
But Grayson says society is changing and voters need more flexibility. We're becoming more mobile, working non-traditional hours and living more hectic lives. That's why Grayson wants Kentucky to embrace no-excuse, in-person absentee balloting that's closely monitored. "For example, on Election Day, we have poll workers. We have Republicans and Democrats who are both there watching the polling places and they kind of mutually enforce each other. If we're going to have early voting, where more people are voting early, we need to adopt that model. We also need to help the counties with the costs."
That's for sure, says James Lewis of the Kentucky County Clerks Association. "We would have problems unless there's financial help for most counties. Right now, precinct costs are two thousand dollars per precinct. The state is reimbursing two hundred."
House Speaker Pro Tem Larry Clark feels their pain. "I do agree, we have to give you and all the clerks more money - not just for early voting, but all future elections - to get better poll workers and more poll workers. I know we have a difficult time in Jefferson County getting poll workers. And, like you say, there's very little money there, so some of them may wake up that morning and say, I'm just not going to go."
Clark serves on a legislative panel studying early voting. Also on the committee is former Governor Julian Carroll, who's now a state senator. He likes the idea of early voting, but questions whether the state constitution allows it. "The constitution provides for absentee voting, but the constitution is void of early voting. So, is the constitution exclusionary? Does that mean there is no other way of us statutorily authorizing early voting?"
Probably not, without amending the state constitution, says Assistant Attorney General Ryan Halloran. "I think the safest course would be to go that route. You don't want to take a risk of an election being thrown out by the courts."
No problem, says Rep. Greg Stumbo, who believes lawmakers could get a constitutional amendment to voters in fairly rapid fashion. "We could pass a constitutional amendment that would be voted on in '10. And if it were to be adopted, then the enabling legislation could be in place following the '11 short session and then it would be in place for the presidential election in '12."
The ball is already rolling. Louisville Rep. Darryl Owens is pre-filing an early voting bill for consideration next year. The measure would allow in-person absentee balloting to be conducted during normal business hours, at least 12 working days prior to the Sunday before Election Day. It also would allow challengers to be appointed to observe early voting. Similar legislation passed the House this year, 61-30, but stalled in the Senate as time ran out on the session.