A selected few get a head start on the 2004 presidential election

| 21 Feb 2012 | 10:50

    SUSSEX COUNTY-While the country and the world await the outcome of the Nov. 2 presidential election, some voters in Sussex County are already making their decision on who should be the next occupant of the Oval Office. The Sussex County Clerk's Office has already begun mailing ballots to county voters who will not be able to get to the polls on Nov. 2. While a growing number of states allow early voting for any reason, New Jersey election laws still require absentee voters provide an excuse n either illness, disability, religious holiday observance, temporary college campus residency, out of state travel, or work during the entire time the polls are open. In the 2000 presidential election, 2,695 county residents voted by absentee ballot, according to the clerk's office. That's about 4.5 percent of the total number of voters in that election. County voters have until Oct. 22 to apply by mail for absentee voter status for the Nov. 2 election. All absentee applications must be received and in the clerk's office by Oct. 26. Ballots are then mailed to homes and must be filled in and back in the clerk's office by Nov. 1. County voters may visit the clerk's office in person up until 3 p.m. Nov. 1 to apply and vote absentee, a clerk's spokesman said. In emergency cases, voters who want to vote by absentee ballot after the 3 p.m. Nov. 1 deadline must have a court order allowing the ballot to be cast, according to the clerk's office. Sussex County has a judge on call to handle such emergencies. However, the early voters have to wait like the rest of the country to be counted. Sussex County Clerk Erma Gormley said the absentee ballots are tallied on election day at the same time as votes that are cast at the polls. As part of the county's high-tech approach to voting, which includes touch screen voting booths, absentee ballots are optically scanned. Gormley said the most common reason people apply to vote early is that they are at college or will be traveling out of state on election day. She said the county has a list of permanently disabled voters who have standing applications to vote absentee the entire year. Having a reason to vote absentee may be coming to an end. A change in the law allowing optional early voting for any reason could help voter turnout, Gormley said. "I'm very much in favor of it," Gormley said. "It's a way to get more people to vote." Currently, 32 states have laws that allow early voting for any reason, up from 11 states in 1996, according to Helping Americans Vote, a Washington-based organization that helps corporations educate their employees on early voting and absentee voting. Proponents of early voting say the convenience will increase voter participation. Critics argue that ballots marked outside the voting booth remove the protections of a secret ballot and prevent voters from responding to last-minute developments in the campaigns. In 2002, legislation allowing early "any reason" absentee voting was passed by the New Jersey General Assembly, but the measure died in the Senate. In January the measure was reintroduced by Majority Leader Joseph Roberts (D-Camden) and is currently in committee, a spokesman in the majority leader's office said. If a change in law allows more absentee ballots, Gormley said, her office will adapt to meet the increase. "Nothing is so much of a burden that we can't handle it," she said. "There are new rules all the time that we have to deal with."