Long lines at Bartholomew County polling places that forced some voters to wait more than two hours to cast ballots in Tuesday's presidential election have prompted county officials to seriously look at an overhaul of the voting system.
One alternative getting attention is the concept of vote centers, which would create five to seven large polling places instead of the county's current 66 small precincts. Vote centers would allow county residents to vote at the location of their choice, no matter where they live.
"I am certainly interested in exploring the idea," said County Clerk Tami Hines, referring to a concept that has caught on in a handful of Indiana counties in the past five years. That includes neighboring Johnson County, which went to the all-in-one system this year.
"We are hopeful that the vote centers would do two things," said Larry Kleinhenz, president of the Bartholomew County Board of Commissioners. "They'll make it easier to run the election, and we hope it will be more of a convenience for voters."
The concept would put many voting machines at fewer polling places instead of an average of two per precinct.
Kleinhenz estimated Bartholomew County would need five to seven vote centers. Typically, the vote centers also serve as satellite locations for absentee voting with extended hours a week before big elections.
"We have talked about vote centers for a while, and we almost certainly want to try it on a trial basis," Kleinhenz said a day after voter complaints flooded the county courthouse.
Some voters didn't cast ballots until 8:20 p.m. at the Taylorsville Volunteer Fire Department, for example. Those individuals would have been in line before 6 p.m. Tuesday.
Long lines were a headache for many Bartholomew County voters, even though the 29,752 ballots cast in Bartholomew County fell short of the record 31,570 in 2008. Comparing votes cast only using machines on Election Day, Tuesday's total of 23,340 was the fewest among presidential elections in more than 32 years.
Complaints made to the clerk's office on Election Day resulted in a press release sent to local media at 9 p.m., before the last votes were counted, explaining potential factors in the day's voting delays.
"A few voters have questioned the location of voting places or the number of machines in polling places. The polling place selection is determined by our County Commissioners," according to the release by the County Election Board. "The number of voting machines is a function of the cost of purchasing more machines in a time of tight budgets."
Interviewed Wednesday afternoon, Hines — who was elected in 2006 but took office in 2008 — said she did not request that the county purchase more voting machines for this year.
HOW CENTERS WORK
The three-member County Election Board created a study committee last fall to look at vote centers, which use special hardware and software to let voters cast ballots at central locations. An online component ensures they can't cast more than one ballot or vote absentee and then again on Election Day.
"I am a firm believer in the process," Johnson County Clerk Sue Anne Misiniec said on Wednesday. The county hired 170 precinct commissioners to work Tuesday, down from about 670 to staff 134 precincts in past elections.
"Allowing the voter to vote wherever they want is such a neat concept. I certainly didn't come up with it, but I commend those who did," Misiniec said in a telephone interview. "We hear lots of positives about it. People have flexibility."
A Ball State University study during a pilot phase of the vote center concept in Cass, Wayne and Tippecanoe counties in 2007 and 2008 found cost savings of 25 percent or more with the centralized operations.
But Misiniec said there are significant startup costs, and those have to be weighed before giving the vote center concept a try.
Johnson County spent $128,000 buying 60 electronic poll books that link with state voter registration files, printers, scanners and support services to go live with its 22 vote centers for the primary and general elections this year. Misiniec said keen interest in the presidential race still led to long lines in Johnson County on Tuesday, but "it was a big election and people wanted their voices heard."
Kleinhenz said voting centers would have to be spaced around Bartholomew County in a strategic way.
"They'd have to be centrally located. I personally would like to see us do it at the next midterm elections (in 2014)," he added.
In Bartholomew County, voters said the two- or two-and-a-half-hour waits some people experienced were unprecedented.
Tiffany Oliver waited nearly two hours to cast her ballot at the Taylorsville Volunteer Fire Department.
Oliver said she went to the fire station at 8 a.m. and finished voting at 9:50 a.m. Her husband, Mark, faced even longer delays, getting in line at 4:50 p.m. and finally casting his ballot at 7:15 p.m., she said.
"It's never been like that before," Tiffany Oliver said. "Usually you're in and out in 15 minutes."
Hines and Kleinhenz said a lengthy seven-page ballot and a complex property tax referendum on early childhood education funding contributed to long waits at Taylorsville, as well as at precincts from Hope Community Center to the 4-H Fairgrounds Family Arts Building.
"I waited two hours myself at Harrison fire station, actually an hour and 50 minutes," Kleinhenz said. He used a stopwatch to time several voters as they hunkered down at voting machines, and some took five minutes to cast their ballots, rather than the two minutes per voter county officials typically expect.
"We could have used another machine or two," said Taylorsville precinct worker Jim Wininger, who worked at least a 14-hour day.
Hines said the county owns 137 voting machines and all but three to five of those were in the field on Election Day. She acknowledged that her department used five machines at the county courthouse for early voting compared to two in past elections. The early-voting machines could not be used again on Tuesday because vote totals in them hadn't been downloaded yet.
There were 245 poll workers in place at 66 precincts, 40 fewer than in 2008 when President Barack Obama made his first run for the White House. Hines said it's getting more difficult to find volunteers to staff polling places for $125 for the day, up $25 from the previous presidential election.
No one is sure if the lack of manpower slowed things as voters asked them to check names and addresses against the official voter rolls.
At the Taylorsville fire house, 559 voters cast ballots in person Tuesday. Poll inspector Greg Duke said: "We shut the door on time (at 6 p.m.), but it took us another two hours or more to get everyone through the line. I spent a lot of time apologizing about the delays. Most people were good-hearted about it, though."
Voter Arleen Keele, who spent a little over two hours waiting to vote, said she thinks Precincts 0225 and 3000 at the fairgrounds could have used one more voting machine.
"Having to stand in line that long doesn't exactly encourage democracy, and it makes democracy available only to those who have two hours to spare," Keele said.
Bartholomew County wasn't the only area with long waits.
During his acceptance speech, made after after 1 a.m. Wednesday, President Obama said: "I want to thank every American who participated in this election, whether you voted for the very first time or waited in line for a very long time. By the way, we have to fix that."