Vote Centers Turn 10


[Image courtesy of coolibar]

Story by Mindy Moretti reprinted from this week’s electionlineWeekly

A decade ago, Larimer County, Colo. Clerk Scott Doyle was looking for a way to deal with many of the changes mandated by the Help America Vote Act.

Working with the county’s elections department and practices already in place for early voting, Doyle and company created the concept of vote centers to use in all elections.

Now, although Doyle has recently retired, his idea of consolidating voting precincts into a small number of come-one, come-all polling places is spreading to more and more counties across the country.

“The success of vote centers is largely due to their attractiveness to voters who might not otherwise vote,” said Robert Stein, political science professor at Rice University who has studied vote centers. “They afford inexperienced votes many of the benefits in-person early voting offers, in those states that allow voters to ballot before Election Day. “

Counties making the move to vote centers cite a variety of reasons for making the switch, but the biggest factor of all seems to be cost savings.

“Election Day voting is becoming very costly with fewer voters balloting on Election Day at a large number of very costly Election Day voting places,” Stein said. “States will seek ways to reduce the cost of Election Day voting places and one way is to consolidate Election Day voting places to a smaller number of larger voting places, allowing voters to vote at any location.”

Indiana was one of the first states to embrace the idea with five counties participating in a pilot program from 2007-2010. Since the completion of the pilot program — which was deemed a success — the Indiana General Assembly approved legislation in 2011 allowing all counties in the state to switch to vote centers if they wish.

In the months since the 2012 election season has come to an end, several counties throughout the Hoosier State have taken the steps necessary to make the switch to vote centers.

“We currently have seven vote center counties in Indiana and one more moving to the vote center option in 2014,” explained Valarie Kroger, communications director for Indiana Secretary of State Connie Lawson. “There are several more that are currently looking at the option.”

Kroger said she wasn’t sure how many counties would ultimately move to vote centers, but quite a few are exploring the option.

“Secretary of State Connie Lawson hosted 13 regional vote center meetings around the state to provide counties with information on the vote center model,” Kroger said. “Several counties are cash-strapped and the vote center model could provide a way to reduce local election costs.”

One of the counties moving to vote centers in 2014 is Floyd County. The county spent a year studying the concept and in October of 2012, the county council voted to make the move.

“While a benefit of using vote centers is to control costs, the biggest benefit will be voter convenience,” Linda Moeller, Floyd County clerk said in a statement. “We’ve involved the public from the beginning and compiled a study group that represented a cross-section of our voters and constituents – ensuring we had public buy-in and support.”

Of course, the switch to vote centers has not always been easy. Both Denver in 2006 and Galveston County, Texas in 2012 experienced numerous problems. But despite the problems, counties are moving forward.

Currently there are 11 Texas counties using vote centers. Five of those counties had used vote centers for several election cycles and six used them for the first time in November 2012.

“Some of our counties, such as Lubbock County, have been using vote centers for several election cycles,” said Keith Ingram, director, Elections Division, Texas Secretary of State’s Office, “Dorothy Kennedy the election administrator in Lubbock has taken on the role of mentor to election officials in newly participating counties so that they have a much greater chance of succeeding.  This cross-pollination of knowledge and best practices has been quite beneficial to Texas’ overall experience with the program. “

According to Ingram, the Legislature has limited participation outside of the counties already deemed successful to six larger counties (those with more than 100,000 population) and four smaller counties. The Legislature also limits the counties participation to whether or not they use DRE voting equipment and the capacity to use e-pollbooks.

It’s unclear, at this time, if the Legislature would seek to expand the number of counties using vote centers.

Back in Colorado, where this whole thing got started, the Legislature recently approved a package of election-reform legislation — and Gov. John Hickenlooper signed into law — that would not only require local elections officials to mail a ballot to every voter, but would also require counties to establish a minimum number of vote centers for those who wish to cast their ballot on election day instead of via mail.

Is there a partisan effect on moving to vote centers? Approval by Indiana’s largely Republican General Assembly and Colorado’s Democratic-controlled General Assembly would believe one to think not, but Stein noted politics affects most everything.

“Most of the reluctance to adopt Election Day vote centers for all elections stems from partisan candidates fearing that they will be disadvantaged by the adoption of new election procedures.  This is true for both Democrats and Republicans,” Stein said. “Largely the problem is the uncertainty associated with adopting a change and fear among Democrats that their base not be deterred from voting and Republicans who fear that Democratic voter turnout will be benefited from the adoption of vote centers.”

Stein said that the research to date (which is limited) does not identify any partisan advantage to the adoption of vote centers.

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