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NWA editorial: Voting made easy

UA center rejection shouldn’t discourage voting by NWA Democrat-Gazette | August 25, 2016 at 1:00 a.m.

The late John Logan Burrow, an attorney who served for years as chairman of the Washington County Election Commission, often reminded those clamoring for faster election-night results that the commission's job is getting vote tallies right, not fast.

Burrow understood why people wanted results quickly, but he kept his focus on the overarching commission responsibility: accurately counting votes, no matter how impatient others might become.

What’s the point?

The Washington County Election Commission’s rejection of a proposed vote center on the University of Arkansas campus doesn’t disenfranchise anyone and should not be an excuse for a lack of voter participation.

Burrow's commitment to the commission's duties came to mind last week as the Washington County Election Commission rejected a proposal by University of Arkansas students and other advocates for installation of an early voting center on the college campus. The center, at the Student Union, would have been open during the two-week early voting period before the Nov. 8 general election, but not on Election Day.

The commission's vote was 2-1, divided along party lines.

The students had built a convincing if not compelling case, with support from the UA's chancellor and other administrators and faculty. They avoided arguments about increased cost by offering to use Associated Student Government money to pay for the vote center and for the needed parking for poll workers. They cited the thousands of students, faculty and staff who are on campus daily. They argued the convenience of the on-campus location would potentially enhance student involvement in the election process.

But the answer was no. Commissioner Renee Oelschlaeger said the students hadn't proved a need, and she's right about that. The students demonstrated an understandable desire for a campus-centric solution for students whose lives are understandably campus-centric, too. But need is another measure, one that's difficult to prove when the main early voting center -- the Washington County Courthouse -- is a mile away from campus and on Election Day, other vote centers are even closer. Or when the early voting period is an astonishingly convenient two weeks long.

"Democracy isn't always convenient," Oelschlaeger said, offering a reminder that some rural residents travel several miles to vote. For some, it's a real struggle, she said, but they follow through on their responsibilities as citizens anyway.

Hers is a fair point, but it's not entirely accurate, because when it comes to people on the University of Arkansas campus, democracy already is abundantly convenient. Always. If the commission had decided to include a vote center on campus, it would not have bothered us. But it's important to note voting has never been easier. In terms of both proximity and scheduling, there's not a student, faculty or staff member or administrator on the UA campus who is disenfranchised unless it's self-imposed. That some critics have suggested the decision is an extension of GOP efforts to suppress voters is a disservice to the historically admirable work of the Washington County election commissioners.

Was it partisan, as some have suggested? The makeup of the commission is partisan by its very nature, but the implication of such complaints goes further -- that the decision was only partisan.

We can understand how someone might suspect political motivations. Once upon a time, it was the party of the elected governor that decided who controlled county election commissions, and for decades that meant the Democrats were in charge. Then Winthrop Rockefeller took office in 1966. A Republican governor for a state that had perpetually been Democratic? Something had to be done. So in a little partisan switcharoo, the Democrat-controlled Legislature change the law to define the "majority" party as the one that held the state's seven constitutional offices, which includes governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, attorney general, treasurer, land commissioner and auditor.

So, yes, election commissions have been subject to some partisan chicanery, by Democrats. That switch safely locked up election commissions under Democratic control for nearly 50 years until 2014, when Arkansas voters handed the GOP victories in all seven constitutional offices. Republican Party officials were then empowered to pick two of the three election commissioners in each of Arkansas' 75 counties.

And in all those years of Democratic control of the Washington County Election Commission, its members didn't open a place for voting for the University of Arkansas campus. And there were no claims of students being disenfranchised.

Certainly, circumstances have changed over the years. Today's technological advancements have effectively killed the methods in which voters had to be assigned to precincts on Election Day. Instead, voters can go to any "vote center" in the county to cast a ballot. That's more convenient for everyone, including students.

Likewise, voters today have extended periods for voting unlike the limited options of the past. Once upon a time, the only option for someone who couldn't vote on Election Day was to apply for an absentee ballot, including a reason the duty could not be completed on Election Day. Today, voters can just walk in and vote during a two-week voting period.

Convenience is far more abundant today than in the past, so it's hard to believe anyone ready to cast a ballot lacks the opportunity. And it's hard to believe claims that last week's decision is a partisan effort to discourage student voting.

But back to the late John Logan Burrow's approach. He set a tone that inspired an examination of election issues based on preserving the integrity of the election system. Accuracy, not speed. And in the same vein, today's commissioners took their responsibilities seriously with concerns about the UA students' offer to pay for the vote center.

That sounds innocuous enough, but should the location of vote centers be determined by external interests who have the financial capacity to fund them? Tyson Foods Inc. has thousands of employees at its headquarters who would find a vote center there convenient, and the company could afford the few thousand dollars it takes. Same goes for Walmart Stores Inc. Or, to dig a little deeper, what about Koch Industries, which employees thousands in Wichita, Kan.? Should they be able to buy a vote center there and at other locations? What about George Soros and a vote center at his financial firm's offices?

The point is, these commissioners looked at the bigger picture and chose to preserve election integrity from the influence, or the perception of influence, by those who have the money to spend. That's an important consideration advocates for this change didn't have to concern themselves with, but we're glad the commissioners did. It was a precedent worth avoiding.

Lest anyone is confused, let us state this clearly: The votes of University of Arkansas students are incredibly important, just as important as the votes of every other registered voter in Washington County. By its actions election after election, the Washington County Election Commission has succeeded in serving them all and protecting their rights as Americans to be involved in the political process. Just like before last week's decision, every voter has the opportunity to be as involved as he or she decides to be.

If the election commission's decision discourages anyone from voting, that's not a problem related to the commission. It's a problem related to the voter.

Commentary on 08/25/2016

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