How We See It: Expand Sites For Early Voting In Washington County

Should Election Day have a spot on the list of endangered species?

Elections are at the core of the American experience, so nobody's talking about getting rid of them. But in recent years, the expansion of early and absentee voting has spread the process of ballot-casting out. In Arkansas, depending on the election, early voting can begin as far out as two weeks before Election Day.

What’s The Point?

Despite some reasonable hesitation to more than tripling the number of early voting sites in Washington County, the Quorum Court should agree to add more locations for the November election.

Some refer to early voting as "convenience" voting: Voters get more options in their busy schedules to slip down to the county clerk's office and cast their votes. Then, the convenience expanded from time to place. In Washington County, voters have been able to cast early votes at the courthouse at Dickson Street and College Avenue in Fayetteville and at Parsons Arena in Springdale. For last spring's primary Benton County had nine locations for early voting.

Expansion of early voting sites is being debated in Washington County. The Election Commission sought $43,000 in additional funding to expand from two to seven early voting sites for the November election. It passed the Quorum Court's Finance Committee, but its future is in question. The vote tally was 7-6.

Election coordinator Jennifer Price told the justices of the peace on the Quorum Court about a third of the votes cast in the last three elections came through early voting, and she expects the popularity of the option to continue.

Justice of the Peace Tom Lundstrum questioned whether additional voting sites will translate into more voters.

"The people who want to vote are going to vote," Lundstrum said. "I'm not necessarily opposed to extra sites, but every year we're going to have to spend this for extra labor and so forth."

Critics have reason to be skeptical. A 2013 study published in the American Journal of Political Science declared early voting as popular, but said it was actually associated with lower turnout. The reason? The University of Wisconsin researchers said early voting robs election day of its "stimulating effect" by reducing the social pressure to vote and less opportunity for campaigns to motivate their supporters and get them to the polls. Early voting dissipates the energy of Election Day over a longer period of time, the researchers said.

Other reforms, such as Election Day registration, actually encourage a higher voter turnout more than early voting, the researchers said.

Early voting has its place and convenience should be taken into account. An area of Washington County's size needs more than two locations for early voting. Is seven the magic number? That's debatable, but the $43,000 cost is not so astronomical that it should negate the effort.

The Quorum Court should embrace the opportunity to create new voting locations, especially in the west part of the county, for the major elections that happen every two years. Perhaps adding three locations and measuring their effectiveness is an option. But there's no doubt many voters would benefit from avoiding the drive to either the courthouse in Fayetteville or the rodeo grounds in Springdale.

Justices of the peace should listen to the election commission as to the need, even if they want to take a more measured approach toward expansion.

Commentary on 08/16/2014

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