NWA editorial: Voting made easy

What’s the need for a vote center on UA campus?

Each morning, after the newspaper arrives with a thump at the street end of the driveway, the more convenience-focused part of us would really love it if the carrier placed it instead on our doorsteps.

Then again, lying in bed as those early morning deliveries are made, there's a sleepy-eyed temptation to want even more: Why can't the carrier just bring it on inside and put it next to the coffee machine that automatically makes our coffee in the moments before we wake? It's just a little bit farther. What's the big deal?

What’s the point?

Before election commissioners put a vote center on the University of Arkansas campus, the question needs to be asked: What difference will it make?

No one is immune from wanting convenience. That's why fast food has become fundamental to the American way of life. That's why hospital emergency rooms lease highway billboards showing just how few minutes someone will have to wait to see a medical professional -- even in an emergency, convenience counts.

On the University of Arkansas campus, the almost annually recurring message to the Washington County Election Commission from students is this: Give us a voting center on campus.

And who can blame the students for asking? Naturally, it's easier to dip into a building as one strolls across campus than to venture off campus to exercise the privilege of voting.

A representative of the Associated Student Government recently proposed that the election commission open a voting center at the Student Union for the two-week early voting period preceding the November election. The university has an enrollment of around 27,000 plus around 3,400 faculty and staff. Residents halls have a capacity of nearly 5,800.

If we were part of student government, we would make the exact request.

The Washington County Election Commission, however, has a charge to serve all voters of the county. Empowered by Act 1389 of 2013, the commission has adopted an approach that allows any registered voter in the county to cast his or her ballot at any voting center. In the March primaries, Washington County used six early voting centers and, although no decision has been finalized, expects to do the same in November.

About one mile -- most of it down Dickson Street, presumably a familiar rout for UA students -- from the Arkansas Union is the Washington County Courthouse. That's about 2,300 steps, for the FitBit wearers among us.

Sure, not as convenient as down the hall in the dorm, but pretty convenient nonetheless.

Razorback Transit, an Americans with Disabilities compliant, federally funded bus system, picks up at the Student Union every 20 minutes or so during the hours vote centers are open. It's about a seven-minute ride to within a half-block of the Washington County Courthouse, where early voting happens all day long during the two-week voting period.

Operating a vote center costs a few thousand dollars for a two-week early voting period, so it's not a huge amount of money. Still, anyone who has observed the Washington County Quorum Court's budgetary processes of late knows those elected officials aren't throwing money around. A decision to open an on-campus vote center might also be a decision to close another one. Certainly, the off-campus vote centers are far more accessible to the general public -- all voters -- than one seated in the midst of the parking-challenged University of Arkansas campus. No one in his right mind would go to the campus solely to cast a ballot, yet certainly within a two-week period, students on campus have ample opportunity to get over to the courthouse.

But here's the crucial question: Is the lack of a early voting center on campus keeping people from exercising their right to vote? Maybe there's the occasional lollygagger who just can't muster the energy to do it. But do professors show up at a student's home with test in hand if the student fails to make it to class? We hope it hasn't come to that.

There must be some basic expectation that a voter will take the necessary steps to cast a ballot, especially when they're so, so easy already.

Without proof that an on-campus vote center would suddenly tap into a previously ignored or oppressed voting segment, it makes little sense to go to the trouble and expense to create a limited-access vote center catering just to the on-campus crowd. Washington County's Election Commission has to serve all voters, and it appears to be doing so effectively with vote centers accessible to all residents.

Commentary on 05/11/2016

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