This Week in “Change Ain’t Easy”: South Dakota Vote Centers

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[Image courtesy of truckerhunt]

Maybe it’s just me, but the news recently has had lots of examples of communities wrestling with election changes. The latest story comes from South Dakota, where a move toward Election Day vote centers is taking longer than expected because of cost concerns as well as some hesitation at the local level. The Associated Press has more:

Despite few reported problems with voting centers during South Dakota’s recent primary election, lofty setup costs and logistics are slowing the expansion of the system that replaces residents’ precincts.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, South Dakota is one of 10 states that let counties adopt the alternative system. They rely on an electronic check-in process that gives voters the flexibility of visiting one of several locations in the county. Seven counties used the centers in the primary.

One issue is the cost-benefit analysis involved in establishing vote centers:

Research indicates that the centers save money in the long run, said Wendy Underhill, a program manager with the National Conference of State Legislatures. But skeptics argue implementation of the system could be pricey.

Electronic poll book set-ups cost around $2,000 each, including a scanner, a laptop with touch screen and a signature pad, Secretary of State Jason Gant said. During the primary, voters in some counties were able to use the centers in conjunction with a Vote605 app, which gives them a ballot preview and detailed instructions for getting to the polls.

Another challenge is getting existing poll workers, who are usually long-timers under the old system, to buy in and come along – though attrition can work in the election official’s favor too:

[T]he new technology has put off some older poll workers. Hughes County Auditor Jane Naylor said she lost a few workers who had been thinking of signing off anyway and didn’t want to deal with the changes. Naylor needed about 15 fewer staff anyway, because the county opened only seven centers when the county previously had 15 precincts where people could vote.

These concerns have led some counties – including Minnehaha, the state’s largest – to go slow on implementation, which itself is creating some potential issues because of uneven adoption within the County:

[T]he Minnehaha County Commission … has so far resisted proposals to open vote centers for state and county elections. And yet the city of Sioux Falls and area schools have signed onto the voting center system.

The differing policies mean someone might not be able to vote in the same location for two different elections.

Chairman of the Minnehaha County Commission Cindy Heiberger said commissioners have a number of concerns they want addressed before they approve the change. She said rural locations don’t have reliable internet connections and the size and number of precincts in the county mean there would be a number of different ballots for the vote centers to accommodate voters from the variety of precincts.

“It’s not that we don’t want to do it,” Heiberger said. “We’re just not ready.”

The big question, of course, is money – and despite the fact that outgoing Secretary of State Jason Gant pushed vote centers as a state senator, it doesn’t appear that the state will be providing counties any funds:

Minnehaha County Auditor Bob Litz has promoted the upgrade and looked at federal grants to fund it.

“Could it come from the state? Quite possibly,” Litz said. “But I don’t think it will happen. Not today.”

Gant said he wouldn’t push for state funding of the centers, because he likes leaving it up to the counties to determine what they need.

Interest in the vote center concept – which was “born” just ten years ago – is multiplying across the country. This story, and similar ones from places like Indiana, is a reminder that change ain’t easy. It’s a recurring theme, but one which will drive change (or the lack thereof) as much as other factors like partisanship in debates about election administration nationwide.

Stay tuned to see what else does (and doesn’t) happen …

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