Should Kentucky allow early voting, paper ballots?

Erin Mullins arrived at the polls minutes after they opened Tuesday. What she saw was pandemonium.

The line to vote snaked from the cafeteria and through the school before it ended about 40 feet out the doors, Mullins said.

It took her about 45 minutes to get to the entrance of the cafeteria. Once there, it was another hour and a half before she got to the voting booths.

"Even though I waited all that time, I felt proud of myself for sticking with it," Mullins said. "I felt very proud to vote."

For Mullins and others in Fayette County, Election Day meant standing in line for as much as three hours. The majority of Fayette voters had lines of an hour.

Voting lines stretched for more than an hour's wait in Northern Kentucky and Jefferson County.

Such long, time-consuming lines could be shortened if Kentucky went to early voting as 35 states do and used paper ballots like high school achievement tests that are marked and electronically scanned, says Secretary of State Trey Grayson.

"Well-designed early voting provides more convenient access, while minimizing the chance of fraud entering our elections process," Grayson says of early voting.

Of paper ballots, Grayson says, "Not only would they speed up the system, they would be more secure."

Not so fast, says Fayette County Clerk Don Blevins.

"Don't say I'm not in disfavor with early voting, but if it's going to happen, state government, not the counties, will have to pay for it," he says.

Blevins also mentions money when the discussion turns to paper ballots.

"I guess every voting system has its advantages and disadvantages. We have to provide the best we can at the most cost-efficient price," he says.

Blevins, a Democrat, and Grayson, a Republican, say they are not feuding over how to improve Kentucky's voting process but they don't see eye-to-eye on the issue.

"Don and I have some different opinions," Grayson says.

"There's no feud between him and me," Blevins says. "I just know his nose is out of joint with me because I won't withhold my opinions while he wants to say he did this and that for Kentucky."

State law makes Kentucky one of the most restrictive states in the country in casting a ballot before Election Day.

Kentuckians are only allowed to vote absentee if they have one of several permitted excuses, such as disability or illness, military or being temporarily out of the state.

Les Fugate, deputy assistant secretary of state, said Grayson's office has heard from doctors, nurses, coal miners and other workers who have had trouble finding time to vote on Election Day.

"It is not surprising that long, early morning lines, as well as long commutes to work, prevent some of our citizens from voting, for fear they may not make their shift," he says.

Grayson has been pushing for no-excuse, in-person absentee balloting and state financing to pay for costs associated with the change.

Costs may include additional ballots and voting machines, pay for additional poll workers and, in some cases, rental space costs for early voting centers where county clerks lack necessary space.

It would cost about $2 million to get early voting to Kentucky, Grayson said.

He said most states allow voting anywhere from one week to one month in advance of Election Day.

Five neighboring states — Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Tennessee and West Virginia — have some form of early voting.

Grayson hopes to roll out legislation on early voting before Kentucky's 2009 General Assembly begins in January.

Similar legislation has advanced in the state House but died in the Senate.

Sen. Damon Thayer, chairman of the Senate State and Local Government Committee that handles election issues, said he is "not particularly enthusiastic about early voting.

"There are good arguments for it, like convenience, but I think it needs a lot more scrutiny. Besides its costs, I have questions about its potential for fraud and I wonder about voting before campaigns peak."

The Georgetown Republican said he does not think early voting legislation will get far in the 2009 General Assembly.

Asked what might be done to shorten long voting lines, Thayer said, "Maybe we could look at extending the times polls are open, doing something like that."

The cost of providing early voting is the county clerks' major issue, but there are also concerns about fraud.

"When you take voting away from local precincts, it opens up the possibility of fraud creeping into the process," said Leslie County Clerk James Lewis.

Early voting in other states has not shown that it increases turnout, Blevins said.

"What you really get out of it is convenience," he said. "The question boils down to is whether we should justify extra expenses for convenience? Counties are financially strapped."

Voters say they would like the option of voting early.

"The option of voting early would be awesome," said Ronda White, who had a two hour wait to vote at Macedonia Christian Church. "I don't know why every state wouldn't do that."

Many of the people who were standing in line around her were saying they only had an hour from work to go vote, White said. "I was thinking how sad. They were trying to take an hour to go vote and the wait was much longer. That probably discouraged the voters."

Another way to reduce the long lines on Election Day is by using paper ballots, which is a faster and more secure system because it leaves a paper trail that can be checked, Grayson said.

About 62 percent of American and 40 percent of Kentuckians vote by paper, Grayson said.

He noted that Fayette County and Northern Kentucky do not use the paper ballots. Fayette County uses eSlate, an electronic system in which voters "scroll" through the ballot using a wheel.

Much of the cost for the paper ballot machines can be funded through federal dollars, Grayson said.

"We offered counties $4,500 per precinct to purchase new voting machines with paper ballots but some, like Fayette, declined," he said.

Blevins said he did not accept the money because the standard for voting machines is under review. He did not want to purchase new machines with paper ballots that could only be used this year, he said.

"The Congress is going to talk about this," he said. "There's a solid potential the machines we use will be thrown away. I'm positive we're going to use different machines in 2012."

The lines in Fayette County were longer than what people were used to, but they were shorter than what some people experienced across the country, said Kitty Ware, Fayette County election coordinator. "In Atlanta it was eight hours. In New York it was 10, 12 hours."

If money were no object, the wait could have been eliminated in Lexington, Blevins said. "The way you get rid of lines is you buy more voting machines. Before I buy more machines, I want to make sure the machines we have is the one we're going with."

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