I. In Focus This Wee
Vote centers are good to go in Indiana
After previous struggle, legislation moves quickly this year
The folks in the Tippecanoe County, Ind. got some good news this week when the state legislature voted to make vote centers a permanent part of the elections process in the Hoosier State.
“We are very excited,” said Heather Maddox, co-director of the county’s Board of Elections. “Vote centers have been such a positive experience for voters in our county, the thought of going back to precinct voting was not appealing.”
Getting to this point wasn’t as easy as expected though. Indiana has been piloting the use of vote centers in a handful of counties for several years and by-and-large they have proved successful, not only for voters, but also for the county election officials.
While Tippecanoe first used vote centers in 2007 municipal elections, the first true test came in the 2008 presidential primary. Even with high turnout, there were few, if any reports of problems with lines or other issues at the vote centers.
However, despite the success of the pilot programs, legislators seemed reluctant to allow the program to expand statewide and even voted against that proposition last year because a number of amendments regarding other election administration items like early voting were included.
“This year the bill was kept ‘clean’ meaning no ‘controversial’ amendments were attached,” Maddox said. “We owe a lot to our local legislative delegation for that.”
Maddox and former County Clerk Linda Phillips can take some of the credit for the success of the legislation this year. For the past two years they have spent time in Indianapolis educating and lobbying legislators on the benefits of vote centers. Maddox testified and along with Co-Director Debbie Ingersoll, was also charged with rallying the troops.
“I also encouraged people to write letters, send emails, etc., and they did,” Maddox said. “The legislators made sure to tell me they had received many, many calls and emails.”
Maddox said it was important for the Tippecanoe County Board of Elections to support the continued use of vote centers, not only for the convenience of voters, but also for the cost savings.
“We found the vote centers are a way to save money, something extremely important in a time where local government is being asked to cut budgets yet still provide services, yet still provide a product that voters love,” Maddox said.
Vote centers elsewhere
Vote centers in other parts of the country have met with varying fates since their successful debut in Larimer County, Colo.
Recently in the District of Columbia, the city’s Board of Elections and Ethics proposed using 16 vote centers for a citywide special election in April — a move that BOEE Director Rokey Suleman said would save the cash-strapped city more than $200,000. However, fears of disenfranchisement of voters will now force the city to open up all 143 precincts for an election with an expected turnout of around 10 percent and at a cost of more than $800,000.
Unlike the District, the city of New Orleans embraced the use of vote centers for its 2006 mayoral election — which while not a special election, came just nine months after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the area and forced the city to move to modified vote centers on election day.
Rutherford County, Tenn. is hoping to use vote centers for the city’s 2012 municipal elections, but is trying to find a way around the state’s legal requirement to mail notices to all voters about the use of vote centers — a move that would cost the county $20,000. If the county goes forward it will be the first pilot for vote centers in the state after the state legislature approved the concept last year.
The debut of vote centers in Collin County, Texas in November of 2010 did not go well at all. The county used 72 vote centers which proved an insufficient number that resulted in long lines in bad weather.
The New Mexico legislature is currently considering a measure that would allow the use of vote centers statewide. Legislators and county officials in the state are lobbying in favor of the proposal are arguing convenience and cost savings.
Maddox has some simple advice for other localities that are seeking to implement voter centers but are meeting resistance. In addition to being prepared to a large public awareness campaign including advertising, direct mail and the media, Maddox said if officials really want to see it happen, they need to cross the aisle and work together.
“Put politics aside, work together, and look out for the best interest of the voter,” she said. “Any other intentions and it will not be successful.”
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