New option: 'No-reason' absentee ballots

ATLANTA - Early voting was all the rage in Georgia two years ago.

Some local elections offices got so busy during the five-day early voting window that people were having to take a number and wait their turn.

This year, it's voting absentee that's in vogue. Gov. Sonny Perdue set the tone last Monday when he filled out an absentee ballot at the Governor's Mansion.

"This came out a little higher than I had anticipated,'' Lynn Ledford, Gwinnett County's elections director, said after 20,941 advance ballots had come into her office by Friday afternoon, the fourth-largest total among Georgia counties.

More surprising, however, was that 16,132 of that total were absentee ballots, while only 4,809 were from people who showed up in person to vote early.

And of those 16,132 absentee ballots, 6,878 were from voters who took advantage of a change in state election law that allows people to cast absentee ballots without giving a reason, such as plans to be out of town on Election Day. Only two other counties - Cobb and Fulton - had reported more "no-reason'' absentee votes as of Friday afternoon.

In fact, Gwinnett has been a hotbed for absentee voting this year. In Barrow County, for example, more people had voted early in person than by absentee ballot.

Statewide, more than 350,000 voters already had cast ballots by Friday, four days before the polls open. That represents 8 percent of Georgia's registered voters, still short of the record for advance voting set two years ago.

But it's important to keep in mind that 2004 was a presidential election year that saw a 78 percent turnout among Georgia voters. Secretary of State Cathy Cox is predicting a turnout of 48 percent this year, with the gubernatorial race between Republican Perdue and Democrat Mark Taylor at the top of the ballot.

Convenience cited

All forms of advance voting, whether in person or by absentee ballot, make it easier to vote, a goal the concept's advocates across the country have espoused in pushing to allow voters to cast their ballots before Election Day.

But the jury is out on whether advance voting increases turnout, another argument that has been advanced in its favor.

In fact, many political observers are convinced that it doesn't.

"It just makes voting more convenient,'' said Merle Black, a political science professor at Emory University. "It doesn't expand the number of voters.''

Curtis Gans, director of the Center for the Study of the American Electorate at Washington's American University, said advance voting can even reduce turnout.

He said some of the people who request absentee ballots and then don't mail them in would have voted on Election Day if they weren't given the opportunity to vote early.

Gans said that spreading out voting over a period of days or even weeks also hampers get-out-the-vote drives that parties typically mount in the final days of a campaign.

But Gans said voters across the nation increasingly have demanded advance voting in the aftermath of the Election Day uncertainties in some states that clouded the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections.

While Western states have taken the lead, the trend now is spreading into the East, he said.

"My guess is more people will avail themselves of absentee or early voting because they want to make sure their votes will count,'' he said.

But it will take time for Georgia voters to get used to these additional options, said Chris Riggall, Cox's spokesman in the secretary of state's office.

Riggall noted that early voting didn't catch on in Georgia when it began during the 2003 municipal elections.

"The first time we had advance voting, very few people availed themselves of it,'' he said. "By 2004, the word had spread and it became huge.''

Riggall predicted the same thing will happen with the new no-reason absentee voting, which took effect last year as part of an omnibus election law overhaul that also included a requirement that voters show photo IDs at the polls.

The photo ID provision has been rejected by state and federal courts and, thus, will not be enforced on Tuesday.

"We're not seeing an exponential increase so far,'' Riggall said, referring to the impact of the no-reason provision on the number of absentee ballots being cast.

"(But) if it follows the pattern of other significant changes in the election laws, it will probably gather some momentum in subsequent elections.''