Friday, October 22, 2010

County votes absentee—in person

Voters weigh in early using absentee ballots

Express Staff Writer

Election staffers Kevin Kniffen and Barbie Royal man the election office for absentee voting. Though no votes can be counted before polls close on Nov. 2, many voters are taking advantage of the county’s in-person absentee voting option and casting their ballots early. Photo by David N. Seelig

Nov. 2 is still more than a week away, but almost 700 county residents have already cast their ballots in this year's election.

The correct term, said County Clerk JoLynn Drage, is "absentee voting," not "early voting."

Early voters in some states can go to the polls ahead of Election Day, but still follow the same process as election-day voters, signing the voter registrar and placing their ballots in the ballot box.

"Early voting is like going to the polls," said Idaho Elections Supervisor Betsie Kimbrough.

Though the word "absentee" may be belied by the almost 400 people who have gone to the Blaine County Courthouse in Hailey in person to vote since the election office opened in late September, Drage said "early voting" is technically illegal in Idaho.

The absentee process, which also allows voters to cast their ballots ahead of schedule, is a bit more complicated, she said.

Voters must request an absentee ballot, either in person at the courthouse or by mail. If requested by mail, the ballot is mailed off to the voter, who must fill it out, place it in a signed and sealed envelope and return it to the county by 8 p.m. on Election Day.

Of the 1,048 absentee ballots requested as of press time, election deputy Kevin Kniffen said almost 600 were for mail-out ballots. Though the numbers are constantly increasing, only 229 of these ballots had been returned as of press time, meaning most absentee voters who have completed a ballot did it in person at the courthouse.

Known as in-house absentee voting, this process is similar to the mail-in option.

"It's all the same forms as if we were to mail it to you," Kniffen said.

Voters who opt for this process arrive in person at the courthouse, show photo identification, then fill out a form requesting an absentee ballot, which they can fill out on the spot. The ballot is then placed in a signed and sealed envelope.

Despite the extra forms and steps involved, absentee voting has its advantages, said election clerk Amy Rivkin.

"For the person, it's on their time instead of on Nov. 2," Rivkin said. "It's more flexible."

Drage said that dealing with voters over a longer period of time via absentee ballots can make things slower for poll workers on Election Day. During the 2008 election, the election office had up to 300 in-house absentee voters per day, according to Drage.

"Sometimes we get overwhelmed in here and you might have to wait," Drage said, adding that the elections office has other functions to fulfill throughout the day, which can slow the process down.

Turnout has not been nearly that high this year, Rivkin said. The highest number of people so far has been 75 in one day.

"That's not terribly high," she said.

The absentee voters so far account for almost 6 percent of the county's registered voters, up from 1.68 percent during the Blaine Manor levy election in August.

"It's not bad for a mid-term," Drage said, adding that she has seen an increase in in-house absentee voters over the 12 years she's worked at the county.

"I think it's getting higher because people know it's available," she said.

Absentee votes are usually counted first while waiting for workers to return from polling places, Drage said. Even though ballots are cast early, the election office cannot count the ballots until polls close Nov. 2, to prevent early results impacting an election.

"You don't want to be accidentally releasing preliminary results while people are still voting," Drage said.

Voters can request mail-out absentee ballots until Oct. 27. In-house absentee voters can vote from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. through Thursday, Oct. 28, and from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 29. The county is typically closed on Friday, but the election office will hold special hours to catch last-minute absentees. No in-house absentee votes will be accepted on Monday, Nov. 1.

Those who wish to vote traditionally may do so from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Nov. 2. Voters can call 788-5510 or check the Oct. 27 edition of the Mountain Express to find their polling place.

Katherine Wutz:

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