Location, Location, Location: CO County Attempts to Minimize Time to Polling Places

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[Image courtesy of airpatrolcorp]

Many years ago, Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed banks for a living. “Because that’s where the money is,” he replied.

That same approach is what leads fast-food restaurants and hotels to locate near interstate exits – and, I suspect, why there always seems to be an ATM next to a Starbucks.

It’s also the basis for a new effort in Colorado to ensure that voters have some kind of polling place – traditional precinct, vote center or vote-by-mail dropbox – near their home. The Gazette has more on the plan in El Paso County:

By the 2014 primary and general elections, more than 90 percent of El Paso County voters will have polling places and ballot drop-off locations within 10 minutes of their homes.

Clerk & Recorder Wayne Williams discussed his office’s 2014 plans with the Board of County Commissioners Thursday. A doubling of polls and drop-off sites will make sure elections in Colorado’s most populous county go off without a hitch and, more importantly, in compliance with a state law passed in May of 2013.

Colorado House Bill 13-1303 outlines its polling center and drop-off requirements based on population. According to Williams, the law requires El Paso County to have 23 polls for general elections, four for primaries and 11 24-hour ballot drop-off locations.

The county will carry 25 polling places for the November 2014 election “just in case concrete slabs come falling from the ceiling or something,” Williams said with a chuckle after his presentation. He wants to make sure that at least 23 polls will be operational during the last two days of the election, which were the busiest during the 2013 vote.

It’s a new approach for polling place management, which in the past has focused predominantly if not exclusively on neighborhood precincts and more recently on vote centers. El Paso’s clerk is beginning to appreciate the flexibility:

Williams said he was opposed to the law last year, adding that it would be more efficient to have fewer “super polling centers.” But the county clerk & recorder said the new requirements will allow the county to fill some holes and make it easier for everyone to vote. Williams said residents to the north and northeast like Black Forest and those in the southwestern areas near the Broadmoor sometimes have to drive more than 20 minutes to vote in person during general elections.

The new approach isn’t without its own challenges, as evidenced by the discussion when the plan went before the County Board:

Commissioners Amy Lathen, Peggy Littleton and Darryl Glenn were present Thursday for the discussion at the regular BOCC meeting. Lathen and Littleton shared their comments, noting that cost is their main concern.

When Williams recited numbers of those who voted in person during the 2013 election, Lathen expressed some frustration with the new law. Williams’ presentation showed that 1,757 people voted in person at seven locations last November. Using that number, an average of 70 people would vote at each polling location under the new guidelines.

“I can’t believe we’re having a discussion about making sure that everyone is five to 10 minutes from a polling location,” Lathen said. “That just blows my mind.”

The county had five ballot drop-offs in 2013. Williams plans to bring that number to 13. Four proposed locations are already on board and his office is working with four more, he said.

One aspect of the plan will need to be a careful accounting of the costs of this convenience; I have little doubt that election officials and other policymakers want to put voting locations close to voters but their budgets may not be able to handle the load.

Still, Colorado appears to embracing the fact that voters now want options in casting their ballots and are structuring their election operations accordingly. This is a trend worth watching – especially to see if “a polling place within X miles of every voter” becomes a way to meet the Presidential Commission’s recommendation of a maximum 30 minute wait per voter.

Regardless, I can imagine that Willie Sutton would approve.

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