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.”
II. Election News This Week
- The Virginia Attorney General’s office has launched an investigation into the Montgomery County board of elections after the Virginia State Board of Elections expressed concerns that election laws had been broken in the county. According to the Roanoke Times, the state board of elections asked for an investigation of glitches that left voting open to irregularities in several county precincts for several hours during the November 2 election. After a breakdown in computer access, poll workers in five Montgomery County precincts were unable to check to ensure would-be voters coming in the door were registered and in the right precinct. County BOE members agreed that poll workers would record the name and address of each person, confirm it with identification and let them vote electronically. By 9 a.m., every polling place had either an operating laptop or a paper voter list, and normal check-in procedures were followed for the rest of the voting, the officials said. "I don't think they will find anybody did anything with malice or with intent to affect the election," Randy Wertz, registrar of voters told the paper. The state board also reviewed glitches with the county’s May 2010 election.
- Relations on the St. Louis board of elections have gotten so bad, that one board member actually drove past the house of another board member to make sure he wasn’t skipping out on work. According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Commissioners and employees say meetings have descended into name-calling and finger-pointing which threaten to stall board business and drive off staff. Leaders have accused each other of being mean-spirited, vindictive or even racist. The Board of Election Commissioners is a state-mandated and city-funded agency charged with maintaining the city's voter registration list and running all elections in St. Louis. The top two employees are its directors, a Republican and a Democrat. The board comprises four commissioners — two Republicans and two Democrats — who are appointed by the governor and annually receive either $6,000, for members, or $7,000, for the board secretary and chair. According to the paper, city leaders expect Gov. Jay Nixon to replace some or all of the appointed board members.
- Legislators in North Dakota haven’t taken too kindly to the state’s move to vote-by-mail and so this week the House passed a bill that would require counties to open at least one polling place in every city with more than 200 people. "We need to have good elections. We need to have opportunities and accessibility for every voter," Rep. Lee Kaldor, D-Mayville told The Associated Press. "I know this bill has some problems, but I think it's too great an issue, too important an issue, for us to simply abandon." Secretary of State Al Jaeger has estimated the legislation will require spending $156,000 on additional voting equipment, $124,200 on 54 new polling locations, and a recurring $35,000 cost in wages and expenses for election workers. In the November 2010 election, more than 20 of North Dakota's 53 counties relied mostly on mail balloting. State law requires vote-by-mail counties to open only one walk-up voting station on Election Day.“There is nothing in current law that prohibits any county from having as many polling places as they like," Rep. Robin Weisz, R-Hurdsfield told The AP. "We have no business mandating, for our counties, how many polling places they have to have." In Colorado, state legislators were set to take up the vote-by-mail argument in a House committee at press time. Opinions are divided on the legislation with the House Majority leader State Rep. Carole Murray, R-Douglas County—who is also a former county clerk—sponsoring the vote-by-mail legislation and Secretary of State Scott Gessler opposing the move.
- Personnel News: Riverside County, Calif. has hired Kari Verjil to serve as its new registrar of voters. Verjil is currently the San Bernardino County registrar of voters and had previously served as deputy registrar in Riverside County.
III. Research and Report Summaries
Elections in Egypt: Key Challenges for Credible and Competitive Elections - International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), Feb. 5, 2011: In this briefing paper, IFES examines the situation in Egypt, looking at the country’s current electoral system as well as focusing on key issues that may emerge in relation to the conduct of the next elections.
National: Voting Rights Act
Arizona: Voting Rights Act
Florida: Palm Beach County
Georgia: Election changes
Indiana: Vote centers
Kansas: Kobach plan
New Hampshire: Student voting
Texas: Dallas County
Wisconsin: Same-day registration
V. Job Openings