Vote centers make it easier to participate in the democratic process by making Election Day voting more convenient. Studies also show vote centers, as opposed to traditional precinct-based voting systems, can save county election offices money. Nonetheless, the Allen County Election Board has decided to delay transitioning to vote centers – and they very likely made the right call.
On Tuesday, the election board decided it would not convert to vote centers for the 2014 election. Instead board members are going to re-organize the current precinct-based voting locations and add four early-voting satellite centers.
The election board has decided we will go to vote centers eventually, just not in 2014, said Beth Dlug, Allen County election director. But we still want to make some progress.
Understanding the difference between vote centers, early-voting satellite centers and the existing precinct-based voting system can be confusing. So, here are the answers to some questions about the proposed voting changes:
Q. What are vote centers?
On Election Day, every registered voter in Allen County is assigned to a single voting precinct depending on where he or she lives. State statute limits precinct size to 1,400 voters, and a voters precinct determines where the voter must cast a ballot. Allen County has 327 precincts, but only 128 voting locations, because many voting sites serve more than one precinct.
With a vote center system, registered voters dont have to vote at an assigned precinct. They can vote wherever its most convenient. Transitioning to vote centers would also allow the county to reduce the number of polling sites on Election Day from 128 to about 40.
Lawmakers authorized a pilot program in three Indiana counties starting in 2007 to see how well vote centers would work in Indiana. The results were overwhelmingly successful. And a 2010 study by the Indiana Fiscal Policy Institute showed that all 92 counties would save money with vote centers. The study estimated that Allen County would likely reduce its Election Day costs 53 percent, saving more than $100,000, because fewer voting locations and fewer election workers would be needed.
Q. Why are election officials waiting to go to vote centers when the move is expected to save money?
Allen Countys large size creates some unique challenges that are making the transition more difficult. Vanderburgh County, with 137,000 registered voters, is the largest county to convert to vote centers. Allen County has twice as many registered voters.
Dlug estimates the technology infrastructure upgrades needed to convert to vote centers would cost $300,000.
The problem is vote center machines need to be programmed to include all the different ballot options. For example, during a municipal election, the machine would have to feature a different ballot depending on the voters council district.
Its not that the technology isnt there to do this, Dlug said. Its just the upfront costs.
The high upfront costs mean it will take much longer before the county benefits from any Election Day savings expected from vote centers.
The local election office also needs to invest in an electronic poll book to ensure once voters cast their ballot, they are checked off the voting list (the electronic version of what happens when you sign the poll book when voting at your precinct).
During early voting, the county is able to link to the states electronic poll book database, but thats not possible on Election Day.
Q. What is the countys interim plan for improving elections?
The Allen County Election Board decided to reduce the number of regular Election Day precinct-based voting location by about 25 sites.
Were going to re-organize voting locations to precincts so that they are closer to where people live, Dlug said. Some people had to drive past a voting location closer to their house to get to their assigned location. The goal is to reduce that.
The election board is also going to open four additional early-voting satellite locations for a total of five locations where people can cast their vote before Election Day. The county election offices will continue to have an early-voting center. The location of the four additional early-voting sites is yet to be determined.
Q. Whats the difference between an early-voting satellite center and a vote center?
Before Election Day, voters will be able to go to any early-voting satellite center regardless of their precinct. But the early-voting centers are not open on Election Day. Voting machines used for early voting cant also be used on Election Day because of state election rules.