A Tale of Two Indiana Election Days

May 14, 2007

A Tale of Two Indiana Election Days
Indiana Writers Group column for May 16 and thereafter
745 words

By Andrea Neal

    A pilot project in Wayne County that replaced 31 precinct polling places with just four centralized voting centers is getting good reviews. Considering the disaster that occurred in Marion County on primary day, Indiana might want to adopt the Vote Center idea statewide in time for the 2008 presidential election.
    The concept would reduce overhead and alleviate the need for so many poll workers. It might boost turnout, too.
    Finding enough inspectors, judges and poll clerks to adequately monitor the state’s 5,648 active precincts has been a challenge for years. The $110 stipend paid to inspectors and $70 given other poll workers is little incentive for a job that requires training and a 14-hour workday. And grass-roots folk just aren’t as eager to work the polls as they once were. As political scientist Robert Putnam reported at the end of the 20th century, “By almost every measure, Americans' direct engagement in politics and government has fallen steadily and sharply over the last generation.”
    Marion County’s May 8 primary was the worst-case scenario. The difficult task of recruiting poll workers was made worse by the inexperience of County Clerk Beth White who was running the first election under Democratic Party rule in 36 years.
    About 150 inspectors, the managers of the precincts, didn’t report for duty. Officials have no idea how many voters were turned away due to missing inspectors, delayed openings at polling sites, incorrect ballots and wrong voting lists. In the five precincts that never opened, 3,100 registered voters were essentially disenfranchised.
    The contrast could not have been sharper in Wayne County where voters had a full week to cast ballots at two of four central voting sites in the city of Richmond. As the first county in Indiana to pilot the Vote Center concept, Wayne County enjoyed an almost complaint-free primary.
    In Richmond, 4,378 people, 16 percent of registered voters, went to the polls. That was a small but notable improvement over recent municipal primary years, including 2003 when 11.19 percent, 2,990 voters, turned out. Another benefit: Wayne County needed 80 percent fewer poll workers than in comparable past elections.
    Tippecanoe County had also received approval to pilot the Vote Center system, but had no contested primaries last week. Instead, voting officials there held small mock elections in Lafayette and West Lafayette, which went well. If the system works in the fall General Election in both counties, Secretary of State Todd Rokita said he might ask the legislature to empower all counties to make the switch.
    The pilot project was championed by Rokita and modeled after a program in Larimer County, Colorado, which has been using the system since 2003. That county achieved an amazing turnout of 94.6 percent of active registered voters in the 2004 General Election. About one-third voted by absentee ballot, one-third at early voting and one-third at Vote Centers on Election Day. The Election Day lines averaged 15 to 20 minutes.
    Before the switch, Larimer County operated polling places in 143 precincts and used 1,000 poll workers. Now it runs 31 Vote Centers and needs 500 poll workers. Voters receive a postcard before the election with all the voting site addresses and a unique bar code and can take the card to any of the sites to access their own particular ballot. Electronic balloting and special software are needed to make sure voters get the right ballot, regardless of which voting site they choose. A secure, electronic poll book records voting in real time; a citizen can’t vote twice because a scan of his bar code would show he’s already voted.
    The system is proving itself in both urban and rural settings in Colorado. And it could work in Indiana, too. No doubt some would complain about distance; a tiny minority of voters walk to their polling sites and would have to drive or obtain rides to Vote Centers. For most, however, voting would be more convenient because they could choose a polling place close to their work or children’s school to fit their schedule. “I’m excited about the cost savings and the flexibility,” Rokita said.
    Marion County currently has 525 polling sites and 914 precincts. Sixty to100 voting centers would be more than enough to handle the county’s 614,000 registered voters.
    There’s nothing sacred about voting in the precinct where one lives. The goal should be to make voting easy and accessible. As Marion County proved last week, a precinct polling place that never opens is neither.

Andrea Neal is a teacher at St. Richard’s School in Indianapolis and adjunct scholar and columnist with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at aneal@inpolicy.org.


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