Early voting a factor in area elections

MANCHESTER - Political experts and commentators across the nation have sensed an uptick in "early voting" this election year, and that trend may be appearing locally as well.

Several area town clerks have said they have noticed surprising numbers of voters requesting absentee ballots and casting them prior to Nov. 6, the official election day.

As of Tuesday, Manchester has had 472 absentee ballots requested, or 13 percent of the voting population. During this year's election process other towns in the local area are experiencing the same. In Dorset a total of 208 absentee ballots were requested, or 13 percent of the voting checklist; in Arlington 152 requests, or 12 percent. With just under two weeks until election day, town clerks expect these numbers to rise significantly.

Linda Spence, Manchester's town clerk, said she has noticed the number of early voters rise over the past handful of years.

"When I took the job as Town Clerk in 1987 you needed a reason to receive an absentee ballot, weather you were going to be away from home or in the hospital," she said. "You don't need a reason anymore and some people find it easier to avoid the lines on election day and request an early voter ballot."

Countywide, in 2008, the last presidential election year, about 26 percent of voters in Bennington county voted early. Statewide, about 29 percent of Vermonters pulled the levers early.

Opinions are divided over what this means and what its effect might be. Some state and local officials are not too worried about the growing number of early voting, however.

Rose Keogh, the town clerk of Sunderland, which has 54 absentee requests this year, said that she has seen a difference in the number of early voting, but is not surprised that it is happening.

"I think it's a good thing," she said. "It gives more people the opportunity to vote, and in a small town like [Sunderland] it means a lot."

Jim Condos, Vermont's Secretary of State, said this is a somewhat minor issue. He said he believes that most people who fill out an absentee ballot are either away from the area during the voting process or they already know who they are going to vote for and nothing will change their mind.

Oliver Olsen, state representative for the towns of Jamaica, Londonderry, Stratton, Weston, and Winhall, echoed what Condos had to say.

"In some areas like in my district there are people who spend there winters down south and they vote absentee because they are not here," said Olsen. "My sense is that many folks have already made up their mind, north of 80 percent. They are sick of the T.V. commercials and the debates and they are ready to vote and put the election behind them."

Longer and longer election cycles lead many voters to make up their minds earlier, Olsen said.

However, both Condos and Olsen see the downside to early voting. Once votes are cast, voters can't change their minds. That might effect local politics more during the presidential election cycles, they said.

Bob Hartwell, Vermont State senator and Dorset resident, thinks there is an obvious downside relying on an absentee voting process.

"I don't think it is necessarily all good because something major could happen towards the end in a close election," he said. "People can get it out of the way and then become unattached from the whole thing. I find it interesting that it's as heavy as it is right now in Vermont."

Recently, the process for early voting changed with the implementation of the Military Vote, which occurred in 2009. The change to the Military Vote allowed for those in the military or those who will be overseas during the time of the election to vote within 45 days of the general election. The change also allowed for all absentee ballots to match the 45 day period, whereas before the early voter had only 30 days to fill out the absentee ballot prior to the election.

In 2010, Bennington County experienced 21.5 percent of the votes coming from absentee ballots, That was just a shade below what Manchester tallied, with 20.5 percent of voters going to the polls early. Overall, during the 2010 election cycle, 21 percent of Bennington County voters cast early ballots. These lower numbers during non-presidential election years indicate that there is a rise in early voting during those presidential election years.


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