David Kimball on Absentee Voting in Missouri: “Hamsterdam”

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[Image courtesy of oldskoolhooligans]

David Kimball of the University of Missouri-St. Louis had a fantastic piece this weekend at the ArchPolitics blog looking at absentee ballots in Missouri. It’s so good I had to share it below:

On The Wire, the extraordinary TV drama set in Baltimore, season 3 features reformers in several city institutions. One of the reformers is Major Howard “Bunny” Colvin (portrayed by Robert Wisdom), who commands the police in the city’s western district. After exhausting all conventional methods in a futile effort to stem the drug trade in the neighborhoods of west Baltimore, Major Colvin decides to effectively legalize drugs. He instructs his officers to inform drug lieutenants that if they move their operations to an uninhabited area of empty warehouses, then the police will leave them alone. However, if they continue to sell drugs on neighborhood street corners then the police will continue to arrest them. Eventually, the drug trade complies, violent and petty crime rates drop in the neighborhoods, and a thriving open-air drug market takes root in the warehouse district, which is dubbed “Hamsterdam” (after a gang member mishears a police officer comparing the location to Amsterdam). When political leaders get wind of the operation, Hamsterdam is shut down and Major Colvin is forced to retire early with his pension reduced.

Political scientists would describe Major Colvin as a “street level bureaucrat,” the term coined by Michael Lipsky. However, that is a phrase that the lay public likely does not understand. Instead, the writers of the The Wire have given us a simple word, Hamsterdam, to denote a situation where a public official bends or ignores the law within her jurisdiction. It is a wonderful creation, as the original noun (like the law) is altered to suit local customs and needs.

When it comes to elections, Hamsterdam is absentee voting, at least in Missouri and other states that only allow absentee ballots in the case of a voter’s illness or disability, religious beliefs, or absence on Election Day. Missouri election law is clear on this requirement. In 2012, Missouri was one of just 15 states that did not allow early voting or no-excuse absentee voting. Nevertheless, absentee voting has increased dramatically in Missouri in recent years … [T]he number of absentee ballots cast in St. Louis County, the largest jurisdiction in the state … has tripled in volume since 1996. The modest drop in 2012 mirrors the decline in overall turnout in 2012. Data provided by the Missouri Secretary of State’s office to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission indicates that the surge in absentee voting has occurred statewide.

Has there been an epidemic of illness and travel on Election Day in recent years among Missourians? Probably not. Rather, more voters are likely learning by word of mouth that they can cast an absentee ballot in person at their county election office during regular business hours up to six weeks before Election Day. The process is simple. Go to the county election office, ask to vote absentee, show identification, sign a piece of paper, and then you will be escorted to a voting booth to cast your ballot. For those with the means to do so, it is a great way to avoid the long lines at polling places on a busy Election Day. The piece of paper is a form that includes a box to check indicating one’s reason for voting absentee. In the 2012 election, more than a quarter of a million Missouri voters cast absentee ballots. Did county or state election officials review more than 250,000 absentee ballot request forms to verify the stated reason for voting absentee in that election? Probably not. Even if election officials wanted, how would they confirm the health status or whereabouts of absentee voters on Election Day?

The truth is that many county election officials, particularly in heavily populated jurisdictions, like early voting as a way to reduce the crush of voters who will be clogging polling places on Election Day. More than 40 percent of absentee ballots in St. Louis County in 2012 were cast in person at the county election office. In fact, the county election board created a satellite absentee voting location for the 2012 election. Some, including Secretary of State Jason Kander, advocate adopting early voting in Missouri. It is possible that Missouri voters will have a chance to vote on two early voting proposals in the November 2014 election. I will have more to say about these measures if they are approved for the ballot. However, Missouri already has a form of early voting for those who know about it and have the means and willingness to use it.

Not only is the pop culture reference incredibly apt, Kimball’s observation about the utility of absentee ballots to election officials (and their willingness to permit large numbers of such ballots within existing “excuses”) is important beyond Missouri. I look forward to reading more from him as the early voting proposals advance.

Thanks to David for this piece!

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