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Washington County Early Voting Debate Likely Ends Tuesday

by Dan Holtmeyer | September 1, 2014 at 1:00 a.m.

FAYETTEVILLE -- The Washington County Quorum Court will decide Tuesday whether to add four early voting sites for the November election after weeks of proposals, amendments and debates.

The panel will vote during a special meeting on the $28,600 proposal, which put the total of early polling places at six. If the vote mirrors previous tallies on the same proposal, it will pass.

Meeting Information

Washington County Quorum Court

When: 5 p.m., Tuesday, Sept. 2

Where: Quorum Courtroom of the Washington County Courthouse, 280 N. College Ave., Fayetteville

On The Agenda: Whether to pay for four more early voting sites throughout the county

Tuesday's meeting likely will be the last on the subject this year, concluding what became one of the Quorum Court's most drawn-out debates about a small chunk of money -- less than 0.05 percent of the county budget.

"It's a different process we're going through this year," said Jennifer Price, county election coordinator, who made the request on behalf of the county's three-member Election Commission. "We hope that, at the end of the day, we are able to offer more early vote sites, and so the process will be worth it. It took a little doing."

The commission will have polling places starting Oct. 20 at the Rodeo Community Center in Springdale and the county courthouse in Fayetteville. If the proposal passes, early voters can also go to Arvest Ballpark in Springdale, the Prairie Grove City Hall and the Boys & Girls Club and Medical Arts Pharmacy in Fayetteville.

Voters must register to vote by Oct. 6.

Branching Out

The election commission first began looking into new sites in July, when Price suggested one each in Prairie Grove, Fayetteville and Springdale, for a total of five.

Previous elections showed the need, she said. More than a third of the 71,000 votes cast in the county in the 2012 general election were cast early, she said, up from 24 percent in 2004. The slower midterm years have seen a near doubling in early votes in the past decade. In Benton County, seven early voting locations were provided in 2012, and almost half of the roughly 80,000 total votes were cast early.

Price said the main advantage is convenience, helping voters and poll workers avoid the impatient rush of Election Day. Results could be tallied quicker and fewer paper ballots would save some money, she said.

The panel soon became more ambitious, reasoning the lower turnout of a midterm election was ideal for testing new sites. Max Deitchler, the newest member and a Democrat, pushed for a site near West Wedington Drive. By the time the commission went to the Quorum Court on Aug. 12, the number was five, costing about $43,000.

Meetings with the justices of the peace proved to be a crash-course in political strategy and compromise for the commission, a panel more accustomed to straightforward ballot counts and election certifications.

Several Republicans said there were too many sites for too much money, including Tom Lundstrum of Tontitown, who opposed any increase. The commission tried decreasing the sites but then met questions on which ones should stay. The bickering prompted commissioner Renee Oelschlaeger, a Republican, to point out the locations were up to the commission, not the Quorum Court.

"I hate to lose," said Pete Loris, commission chairman, "but, on the other hand, I don't like to play games."

New Sites Needed?

Most of all, Jimmy Mardis of Springdale and other Republican critics asked if new sites were needed in the first place. Rick Cochran of Fayetteville declared the plan a waste of money.

"It's amazing this country got along years ago with people getting one day to vote," Mardis said Aug. 21, the last time the Quorum Court voted on the proposal. It passed 8-7 but needed 10 votes to pass immediately.

The critics pointed to a study on early voting published in January in the American Journal of Political Science that found early voting correlated with slightly lower voter turnout. Less urgency and the absence of social pressure on Election Day might explain the "counter-intuitive" result, the researchers said.

The study didn't track voter turnout over time and several states have both high early voting and high turnout. The local picture seems less straightforward than the study suggests.

Arkansas has offered early voting for almost 20 years. In the past decade, general election turnout has increased between 4 percent and 7 percent, according to the Secretary of State.

This year, Benton County will have nine early sites because the option is so popular, said Kim Dennison election coordinator. Turnout has held steady in the past decade with about half of roughly 120,000 registered voters turning out for midterms and 72 percent for presidential years.

Washington County, on the other hand, has seen turnout decrease in the past decade, falling from 73 percent in 2004 to 66 percent in 2012, according to the county clerk. Conversely, registered voters, now numbering almost 110,000, and the number of votes cast both have risen steadily. Interest waxes and wanes for every election, Price said.

Supporters Gather

The proposal's proponents are from both political parties. Throughout the debate, they framed the plan as a matter of voter access. Eva Madison, a Democrat from Fayetteville, said repeatedly there's no better, more direct way to help taxpayers with their money.

"I would think everybody would want to franchise people and make voting as easy for people as possible," said Candy Clark of Fayetteville, a Democrat. "We're getting really bogged down on, 'This is about convenience.' I'm not really sure this is the real argument here. The real argument is letting people decide when and where they will make their votes."

After the ballpark site was added back to the plan, Bailey said he could support it. Republicans Bill Ussery and Butch Pond joined the Democrats to vote for the plan Aug. 21 and said last week they still support it, though Ussery suggested other options as well.

"I really think in the long run we'd be far better served, instead of going after the convenience side, if that money was spent on some sort of advertising campaign to get people to realize the importance of going to vote," Ussery said. Still, he added, "Hopefully it will pass."

NW News on 09/01/2014

Print Headline: Early Vote Decision Nears

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