Early voting on the rise in Rockdale

CONYERS -- There's 23 days before election day. Have you voted yet?

The advent of early voting and in-person absentee voting in Georgia has meant residents who made up their minds early or just can't make it out to the polls on election day are able to cast a ballot weeks before an election.

That makes it more convenient to vote but does it actually help to increase voter participation? As with almost everything to do with politics, the answer is a mixed bag.

According to John C. Fortier, a scholar with the American Enterprise Institute, the trend of early voting is up across the nation -- 95 percent of all ballots were cast on election day in 1984 compared to 88 percent in 2004 -- but voting practices vary widely from state to state. Oregon is essentially all-absentee with mail-in voting. Washington state averages 68 percent early voting and California is at 33 percent.

However, 22 states and the District of Columbia have low absentee voting rates of 10 percent or lower. Georgia, one of 10 states with a mix of absentee and early voting, falls in the middle with 8.5 percent absentee ballots and 11.5 percent early voting ballots in 2004.

"At best, studies show a very small turnout effect, derived more from slightly better retention of habitual voters than from attraction of new voters," Fortier wrote in his book, "Absentee and Early Voting: Trends, Promises and Perils."

In Rockdale County, the trend is definitely up, according to election officials. The latest tabulation for this year's general election show 4.5 percent, or 2,135 ballots, of Rockdale County's registered voters have cast a ballot in the Nov. 2 general election. That may not sound like much considering there are over 45,300 voters left, but Rockdale County Elections Supervisor Cynthia Welch said that her office has averaged about 100 voters a day, compared to the 30-40 voters this same time in 2008.

"There's a spark out there, and I think part of it is due to both parties are really, really working hard in the county and every weekend there is something going on," Welch said. "We may not hit November 2008 numbers, but we will have a very good turn out this year for early voting."

Voting in 2008 was historical not just because Barack Obama was elected as the first black president. More people voted early -- 72 percent of all ballots in Rockdale County -- than ever before.

Welch said what remains to be seen this year is how many will people show up to vote as election day nears. People stood in line almost every day during the week before the General Election in 2008.

"Voters are liking the early voting," she said. "There's not as much interest in the primary election, but I have seen the number increase with each election cycle."

Welch said the biggest benefit of early voting for her is that it makes election day itself easier for her staff and poll workers.

"It has made it where we can manage election day better, and if there are any problems with early voting, there's enough time to get that voter's problem resolved and they have a better chance of voting," she said. "On election day you really only have that day to get a lot of those problems resolved."

Welch is working to help voters with early voting. Ballot copies are available at the Board of Elections office and will be included in this month's county water bill.

Also, the Board of Elections will hold Saturday voting from 9 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Oct. 23 at 1400 Parker Road.