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As he nears the head of the line, Terry Smith checks his watch after a 45-minute wait to vote at Precinct 3350 at Parkside Elementary School in Columbus, Indiana Tuesday November 6, 2012. A large turnout was the rule at several precincts on Election Day in Bartholomew County. (Joe Harpring | The Republic)
Columbus voters will be the first in Bartholomew County to cast individual ballots at any of six centralized vote centers, starting with the May 2015 city elections.
The following year, all county voters will cast ballots at any of 17 voting centers instead of voting at 66 long-standing neighborhood voting precincts.
Additionally, early voting is being extended to seven county locations instead of just at the Bartholomew County Courthouse.
These voter changes — first considered in 2011 and being made for reasons of cost, convenience and efficiency — have now cleared all three approving bodies.
The County Elections Board gave its approval Jan. 22, followed by the County Commissioners and County Council last week.
With those official actions, Bartholomew joins 12 other Indiana counties to embrace the voting center concept.
Instead of having two or three voting machines at each precinct, the centralized voting centers will have between three and 12 machines, all able to securely hold ballots for all of the county’s 66 precincts. Each voting center would also have two electronic poll books that would eliminate the need to use computer paper printouts during the voting check-in process.
Now that Bartholomew County has agreed to move to a voting-center plan, county officials next must choose from among two different options on how to pay for the change.
Leasing electronic poll books will cost $17,325 per year. Purchasing the equipment would cost $89,088.
The county has already decided to refurbish its Microvote Infinity voting machines at a cost of $138,966.
The number of precinct workers needed during a countywide election would drop from 245 to 126, saving about $20,000 per election.
Less chance for error
Using electronic poll books reduces the opportunity for human error. That’s because a voter’s driver’s license, identification card or passport can be scanned in to quickly process correct voter information.
Such a process is expected to speed up voting, which became a local concern during the county’s 2012 presidential election.
Voting logjams were reported across Bartholomew County in that election, largely blamed on a complicated ballot question to fund early childhood education for Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp.
No absolute end to long lines
But County Clerk Tami Hines, whose office oversees local elections, is not promising the total elimination of long lines.
Voters in Johnson County — where voting centers were first put in place in 2012 — still had to wait in line more than
45 minutes when casting ballots in the presidential election that same year, Hines said.
“But under the vote center system, we can take voting machines from one location that may not be busy and move them to another voting center where they are needed more,” Hines told the County Council last week. “That’s not an option, or even a possibility, the way we have things now.”
Pastor Mark Oliver of the Freedom Chapel in Columbus, who waited two-and-a-half hours to cast his ballot in November 2012, believes it’s the right time to bring the convenience of vote centers to Bartholomew County.
“Whether I stand in a long line or not, I will vote,” Oliver said. “But there are plenty of people who don’t think that way. And in my sermons, I tell my congregation that if you have complaints about this country, you’ve got to vote.”
Oliver agreed in principle to a sentiment expressed last November by rural Hartsville resident Deanna Glick, who told the Election Board that voting is a civic responsibility where some sacrifice should be rightfully expected.
“But due to unexpected schedule changes, some people end up telling their boss they have no choice but to rush off from work early to vote, because their job is far from their precinct,” Oliver said. “Before I became a minister, I had a work supervisor who didn’t let me do that.”
The number of voting centers being established in Bartholomew County far exceeds the state minimums based on population, Hines said.
For the upcoming municipal election, only three precincts would be required by state law. Six will be offered.
And for countywide elections, Bartholomew has opted for 17 voting centers instead of the state-minimum six.
Voters from any area of the county would be able to vote at any of the vote centers on Election Day, which means each voting machine would hold more than 50 slightly different ballots to account for the variety of seats on councils, school boards and legislative districts.
Taking this step requires an upgrade to the county’s Microvote Infinity voting machines, which now hold only one ballot each. That will be done at a cost of $138,966.
The cost of remote-access connections is also set at $6,000 per election year.
The only equipment decision yet to be made will be whether to lease or purchase electronic poll books, which the Elections Board is expected to determine this fall.
The one-year lease cost would be $17,325, compared to $89,088 for buying the poll books outright.
Hines said there is sentiment at the moment to start out by leasing the poll books, with the vendor providing an option to purchase.
That approach gives the county flexibility in controlling costs if
17 voting centers seems like too many, she said.
However, none of the 12 counties to approve voting centers has had second thoughts after making the change, Hines said.
She said the county put the maximum potential cost into its 2014 county budget: $234,054.
The leasing option would drop that cost to $162,291 per year.
The county will save at least $20,000 per election by not needing as many poll workers, analysis found.
Vetting the process
“The Election Board has really done its due diligence,” commissioners chairman Carl Lienhoop said.
The public had several opportunities, including a Nov. 19 public hearing, to talk about their concerns for the project, said Bartholomew County Elections supervisor Jay Phelps, also a member of the Elections Board.
“We wanted to be as fair as possible, but we just didn’t hear serious objections,” Phelps said.
“There were questions on logistics, such as whether a vote center can be located in a specific area or if a precinct worker will have a job, but we didn’t hear anything negative about the concept of vote centers.”
County council member Evelyn Pence was instrumental in alleviating nervousness about going ahead with voting centers, Phelps said.
Pence made telephone calls to most of the 12 Indiana counties that have already adopted the vote center system to learn what they have experienced.
“With a respected member of the council calling all those counties and being unable to find one of them expressing dissatisfaction, that carries a lot of weight,” Phelps said.
An early concern was that none of the 12 Indiana counties currently with voting centers have the Microvote machines that Bartholomew County uses, but Hines expressed confidence that they will work fine.
Also, voting information security was a key concern expressed by council member Jim Reed during a 30-minute discussion that preceded the body’s vote last week.
Reed and other council members were assured by Hines that the Internet-reliant system won’t be hacked into by outsiders in efforts to tamper with votes.
Jim Hartsook, the county’s director of information technology, assured Hines that he is confident he can install a powerful firewall that will make it nearly impossible to break through.
In addition, backup systems built into the technology would provide a smooth operation, and digital poll books connecting all the centers would guarantee that everyone votes just once per election, Hines said.
“We just tried to vet this idea and vet this plan well,” Hines said.
Countywide voting centers
How we got here
2003: The first vote centers in the United States were established in Larimer County, Colo.
2006: After sending a delegation to observe the Colorado vote centers during the midterm election, the Indiana General Assembly authorized Secretary of State Todd Rokita to select three counties for a vote center pilot program.
2007: Indiana vote centers are used for the first time in Wayne, Tippecanoe and Cass counties on a trial basis.
2010: A study by the Indiana Fiscal Policy Institute said Indiana counties could save money with vote centers.
2011: The Indiana General Assembly approved legislation that allows vote centers to become an option for any county. Fayette and Vanderburgh counties filed their vote center plans.
2012: Floyd, Blackford, Johnson and Switzerland counties filed the necessary paperwork to create similar voting systems.
Early 2013: Hancock, Miami and Vigo counties announced their intentions to implement vote centers.
June 30: With 12 of 92 Indiana counties switching from traditional precincts to vote centers, the Bartholomew County Election Board first proposed the system to county officials.
Oct. 20: A committee was formed to research how the vote center system might work in the Columbus area.
Nov. 19: Forty people attend a public hearing conducted by the Bartholomew County Election Board to discuss pros and cons of implementing vote centers. A 30-day waiting period began to gather public concerns.
Dec. 19: Waiting period ends without any opposition voiced.
Jan. 22, 2014: The Bartholomew County Election Board endorsed a resolution calling for establishing vote centers in time for the 2015 city election.
Feb. 10: Resolution approved by the Bartholomew County Commissioners.
Feb. 11: Resolution approved by the Bartholomew County Council.
Sources: Bowen Center for Public Affairs, the Indiana Secretary of State’s Office and the Bartholomew County Election Board
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