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WHEN PEOPLE want to vote but are going to be out of town, or can't make it to the polling booth for other reasons, they can obtain absentee ballots, mark their preferences and send them to the election board. Their votes count and are counted.

Unfortunately, that opportunity doesn't exist for voters in many school districts.

Most school districts in Western New York do not permit absentee ballots. If you can't make it to the polling place, you don't get to vote. Your voice is silent.

Sen. John B. Sheffer II, R-Amherst, wants to change that. He is sponsoring a bill to require all school districts to provide absentee ballots to those who want and are eligible to get them.

Under current state law, absentee voting is discretionary with local School Boards. They can provide absentee ballots if they wish, but don't have to under the law.

We think they should be so required, notwithstanding the objections raised by opponents.

The argument that providing absentee ballots would be too expensive is unconvincing in light of the fact that some districts already provide them.

Surely, too, the administrative details would pose no great difficulty, especially in an age of computerized voter lists. County election officials see no great problem in extending absentee voting to those school districts that do not have it now.

As Buffalo has just demonstrated, absentee votes can be critical to the outcome of an election. Absentee voting is permitted in Buffalo's school elections, and it was absentee ballots -- mostly from elderly voters confined to their homes or living in nursing homes -- that decided the result in one citywide School Board contest.

The bedrock justification for absentee ballots, however, is simply that they allow those who for various reasons cannot appear personally at the voting booth to still have a say in the affairs of their local schools.

That respects a significant consideration in a democratic system. It broadens the franchise and can stimulate interest in school affairs.

Moreover, not to provide absentee ballots for school elections, while doing so in general elections, carries an implication that choices for school leaders and policies are less important. Parents with children in the schools, as well as many other school voters, would certainly not accept that. Nor should they have to.

New York State Election Law, cobwebbed with trivial and archaic rules and regulations, desperately needs wide reforms.

Mandating provision for absentee voting in all school elections would not solve all the difficulties, but it would be a step forward in encouraging broader citizen participation in this process of making democratic choices. And there are few more grass-roots choices to be made than close-to-home decisions on School Board candidates, budgets and bond issues.

A bill similar to Sheffer's won support in the State Assembly two years ago, but not in the Senate. We hope that will be corrected this year. The Senate Education Committee ought to examine the Sheffer proposal (S. 2219) with a sympathetic eye.

Its adoption would, at the least, provide a uniform approach to voting in school elections across the state -- and more equal treatment of the voters in both school and general elections throughout New York.

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