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The Journal Gazette

Verdict still out on utility of vote centers

– Counties that have leapt into the world of vote centers invariably talk about how convenient it is for the voter.

But so far, that convenience isn’t translating into more people casting ballots.

The statewide voter turnout for the recent primary election was 18 percent. By comparison, the 17 counties using vote centers came in with turnout around 15.4 percent.

The last time there was no statewide race leading the primary ticket was 2002.

Back then statewide turnout was 22 percent; the counties that would later move to vote centers had turnout of 23 percent.

“We don’t have data to show that it increases turnout,” Secretary of State Connie Lawson said. “But we don’t see a drop either.”

She said turnout still varies dramatically depending on the candidates and issues on the ballot. This year it ranged from 6 percent to 36 percent.

A vote center is a polling location where any eligible voters in the county can cast their ballots instead of the voters being assigned to one specific location.

All vote centers have an interconnected electronic poll book that is instantaneously updated when someone votes. The voting machines themselves remain the same.

Lawmakers set up a pilot for vote centers that ran in three counties from 2007 to 2010. After that, vote centers were made an option for all counties. A few have signed on each year.

State law includes some basic regulations – such as at least one vote center per 10,000 registered voters. But counties are generally free to set up plans that work best for their constituents.

This year two area counties joined the ranks – Noble and Wabash.

“I think it went very well,” Noble County Clerk Shelley Mawhorter said. “I had very few complaints. The longest line of waiting all day was 20 minutes and that was a personnel issue.”

She said she is taking all the feedback she has received into consideration, and might add an electronic poll pad at each center to ease check-in time.

Mawhorter acknowledged that turnout was low – 18 percent – but noted there was only one countywide contested race.

Noble County previously had 19 polling locations and under the new law had eight vote centers spread around the county. She had to buy Internet access in two spots.

Instead of using 110 poll workers on Election Day she needed only 45, and didn’t need couriers to drop off absentee ballots. So she saved on wages and food for the workers.

Mawhorter also said she doubled early voting under vote centers.

The upfront cost was $17,000 – largely in the electronic poll books and software.

Similarly, Wabash County Clerk Elaine Martin said her upfront costs were about $47,000, and she expects that cost to be fully recouped through savings on workers over three elections.

She said she was disappointed when she left on election night with the voter turnout of 18 percent, but realized many area counties had much lower numbers.

“Convenience for our voters was our No. 1 thought when we started looking at this. On Election Day, we did not have our normal phone call from an inspector saying we have John Doe voter here but he’s in the wrong spot because there is no wrong spot,” Martin said.

Under the rules, Wabash County was required to have a minimum of three vote centers, but they chose to have nine, one in each township. Previously, they had 20 locations.

“We had to make sure our locations had good Internet. There were a few connectivity issues first thing in the morning. We fixed it fairly quickly. No one was turned away.”

Martin said the majority of voters loved it, noting sometimes it is easier for someone to vote near work than home. But there were a few people who have voted in the same location for 20 years and didn’t like the change.

“It was very hectic and stressful leading up to the election,” she said of the logistical changes.

Allen County has opted not to make the switch, in part because of expenses, including up to an estimated $280,000 cost for hardware. The county also struggled with picking locations large enough and with enough parking to handle voters, and Elections Director Beth Dlug said Election Day data from the centers, as opposed to individual precincts, wouldn’t fit on tally cards used to count the vote.

Lawson said some counties want to make the change but don’t have capable Internet service in some parts or are waiting to buy everything all at once when voting machines are upgraded.

And in a few areas, politics gets in the way. Under the law, the three-person election board must vote unanimously.

Lawson supports keeping that requirement – “I think both parties need to buy in on this idea. It’s a bipartisan effort.”

Andrew Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics at IPFW, said some Democrats in the past opposed them simply because Republicans proposed them.

“There was immediate skepticism and that has simply hung on in some places,” he said.

Downs said some still worry the change could potentially disenfranchise some voters, noting the distance that must be traveled is likely farther under vote centers for some people.

nkelly@jg.net

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