New system for primary; will it get a VOTE OF CONFIDENCE?

Simple and convenient.

That’s how election officials hope city voters will describe their experience when using vote centers for the first time in Tuesday’s city primary.

Before, city voters were assigned to one of 25 precinct voting locations around the city, usually located near their homes.

Beginning with Tuesday’s primary, voters may choose any of eight vote centers to cast a ballot.

The eight centers were specifically chosen to allow access by different sections of the community for voter convenience, Bartholomew County Clerk Jay Phelps said.

“I think it’s worked out well, because we’ve made sure everything is done correctly,” said Shari Lentz, supervisor of the voter registration and elections office. “This is a good trial for next year’s presidential election, when we will be everywhere.”

The most important thing for residents to know is that there is no wrong place to vote, Lentz said.

“Most of our complaints in the past came from disgruntled voters who found out their address had not been updated,” she said.

The arrival of vote centers will finally stop residents from showing up at the wrong polling place, Lentz said.

Bartholomew County becomes the 20th of Indiana’s 92 counties to adopt a voting center system.

The eight voting centers being used Tuesday represent twice the number needed under Indiana law, which require a vote center for every 10,000 registered voters eligible to cast ballots.

In 2016, when the U.S. will elect a new president, there will be 18 to 19 voting centers throughout Bartholomew County — almost four times more than is necessary to comply with state statutes, Phelps said.

The expansion of early voting times and locations, as well as the streamlining of the election day process, are both intended to dramatically cut down on long lines at the polls, Lentz said.

However, if time-consuming lines do form at one vote center, election officials plan to use social and traditional media outlets to get the word out, so voters can choose another vote center location, she said.

What to expect

After you walk into the door of a vote center, you will be guided to a check-in table with new electronic poll pads.

By handing a poll worker a valid driver’s license, passport, military identification or student ID, the pad should automatically bring up all the necessary information.

“No more flipping through pages,” Phelps said. “No more signing in the wrong place.”

“We also will no longer mix up the juniors with the seniors (who share the same name),” Lentz added. “Poll workers try as hard as they can, but with that big paper poll book we had in the past, it’s very easy to form a long line.”

If the identification has no magnetic strip with the needed identifying information, the poll worker can call it up by typing in your name, Phelps said.

But if the scan shows you are a county resident trying to cast a ballot for the Columbus mayoral and city council races, a red flash comes on and the machine does not allow the voter to proceed, he added.

“This has happened a few times in early voting already this year,” Phelps said.

After the voter confirms all data is correct, the poll worker collects the voter’s signature to verify it matches the one signed during voter registration.

A paper receipt will then be printed out, and given to the next available judge who will escort the voter to one of the 12 voting machines located at each vote center, Phelps said.

Since every precinct ballot is available on every machine, the judge will use the receipt to call up the proper ballot on the same electronic voting machines that Bartholomew County residents have used in recent years, according to Lentz.

When you are finally given your privacy to cast your vote, the layout of the ballot and candidate selection process should be virtually identical to what it has been in recent years, Phelps said.

Addressing concerns

When some residents learned the Internet would be used at vote centers, an almost-Orwellian concern arose that some “Big Brother” figure would know instantaneously how every resident voted, Phelps said.

But only the electronic polling pads are connected to the Internet, he said.

“We can’t see who you voted for,” Phelps said. “We can only see the total votes.”

There also has been a fear of hackers capable of sabotaging the voting process, but that concern is also unfounded, Phelps said.

“We specifically chose an Apple product because we will be securely connected to the poll pad vendor through their network,” he said.

The vendor, KNOWiNK of St. Louis, has never had a hacking problem, Phelps said.

A few of the four vendors Bartholomew County considered for the new system wanted the county’s Web page to be connected to the poll pads, but the county election board refused because of the possibility of hacking, Phelps said.

In addition, Jim Hartsook, Bartholomew County’s director of information technology, has installed several firewalls for added protection against potential vote tampering, Phelps said.

With fewer places to vote, concerns surfaced of long lines at the voting centers.

But if that begins to happen Tuesday, Phelps said voting machines from less congested vote centers could be brought in.

That was not possible under the former precinct voting system, Lentz said.

An investment in the system

The county has about $180,000 in expenses pending for memory upgrades and for the electronic poll books.

But since the vote centers require far fewer poll workers, the anticipated savings of $67,219 from now through next year seems to have quieted any financial concerns from county officials, Phelps said.

While some money is being invested into advertising for vote centers over the next few years, Phelps anticipates significant annual savings for taxpayers will become evident in six years.

While signs intended only for vote center awareness were placed next to houses earlier this year, Phelps ordered them pulled after residents started inquiring whether they will be casting ballots in private homes.

“I don’t think we’ll be doing that any more,” Phelps said, laughing. “We’ll only put up those signs outside actual vote centers.”

There have been some voters who have complained to election officials that voting is a solemn duty and the process shouldn’t be made easier or more convenient.

“We have heard some folks come by the voter registration office to complain and gripe because they simply don’t like change,” Lentz said. “But then they settle down, try out the system and end up liking the new process.”

Vote center timeline

2005: Former Secretary of State Todd Rokita took a group of state legislators and county clerks to Larimer County in Colorado to view and evaluate vote centers in a real election.

2006: Impressed by the success of vote centers in Colorado, House Bill 1011 was adopted by the state Legislature to run a pilot vote center program in three Indiana counties. The pilot would be implemented in the 2007 municipal and 2008 general elections by Wayne, Cass and Tippecanoe counties.

2011: The Indiana General Assembly passed legislation that allowed any county to become a vote center county. A first meeting in Bartholomew County was held June 30 to discuss the possibility of vote centers. In October, the Bartholomew County Election Board established a Vote Center Committee for exploratory research.

2013: The Bartholomew County Vote Center Committee met four different times throughout the summer to discuss potential vote center locations, handicap accessibility, research on vote centers, presentations from other counties and electronic poll book demonstrations. In November, the Bartholomew County Election Board had its first public meeting to introduce the Vote Center Plan. More than 75 people attended, and many spoke in favor of the concept.

2014: The Bartholomew County Election Board unanimously passed the Vote Center Plan in late January and asked that it start in 2015. It was approved unanimously in February by the Bartholomew County Commissioners and Bartholomew County Council.

2015: Voters will cast election day ballots Tuesday at any of eight vote centers in the city of Columbus for the municipal primary, instead of voting at 25 neighborhood precincts.

Vote center financial impacts

Pending costs

$110,966 — Memory software upgrade for next year’s election that will take place sometime this summer.

$69,050 — acquiring 40 electronic poll books

Total expenses: $180,016

Pending savings

$152,150 — Poll worker costs for precinct voting.  

$84,932 — Poll worker costs for vote centers through 2016.

Total savings: $67,219*

*Savings do not include recent or future advertising costs to promote vote centers through next year.  

What to bring on Election Day

A registered voter must provide an Indiana state government-issued or federal government-issued photo ID before casting a ballot. An Indiana driver’s license, Indiana photo ID card, U.S. passport, military ID or veterans ID is sufficient. The identification card should include the voter’s photo, name and expiration date.

Source: Bartholomew County Voter Registration Office

Author photo
Mark Webber is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at mwebber@therepublic.com or 812-379-5636.