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Bartholomew County officials are considering implementing centralized voting centers for future elections, but residents raised a range of concerns about the idea at a public meeting addressing the issue.
Residents posed questions about political gerrymandering of voting center locations, ensuring a sufficient number of voting machines in certain neighborhoods and technical problems the Internet-dependent voting centers might experience.
If approved, voting centers would allow county residents to cast their ballots at their choice of 17 locations, rather than be restricted to only one polling place under the current precinct system, Bartholomew County Clerk Tami Hines said.
Early voting impact
The voting centers also would provide seven locations for early voting the two Saturdays before an election, Hines said. Currently, early voting is allowed at only the Bartholomew County Courthouse.
One audience member said that he thought the costs of implementing voting centers in the county were excessive.
If the county chooses to purchase the software and hardware necessary to have the centers up in time for next year’s election, the cost to taxpayers will be $204,975, Hines said. But if the county chooses to lease the equipment, the cost would be $135,466 — 34 percent less, she added.
Both of those quotes take into account a $44,050 savings from reducing the number of required staff at polling places, Hines said.
Jean Marr Wilkins, one of 40 people who attended the Nov. 19 meeting in the Bartholomew County Council chambers, said she was concerned that one political party might use fewer polling places to discourage voting in specific areas of the county. Hines responded that voting center locations can be changed only by unanimous and bipartisan support.
Matthew Shepperd, who lives in northeast German Township, was among multiple residents who asked the Bartholomew County Election Board to ensure that sufficient voting centers be located in their area.
Sharon Craig, who has been a precinct volunteer at the Columbus Township Fire Department, expressed satisfaction that voting machines not being used at one precinct can be moved to another with a larger turnout under the voting center system.
What does state law say?
The county now has 66 precincts casting ballots at 49 polling places. Under state law, the county is required to have a minimum of six voting centers for its 50,553 registered voters. The state requires one center for every 10,000 voters and for any fraction beyond that.
While no one asked the board to preserve traditional voting precincts, there was a concern expressed that the change might result in long-term precinct committee members losing their positions.
An audience member asked if voting centers increase voter turnout. Hines responded that there is no evidence from the 12 Indiana counties that have implemented voting centers that they motivate more residents to turn out at the polls.
Responsibility vs. convenience
Deanna Glick, an eastern Bartholomew County resident, said she thinks voting is a matter of personal responsibility, so the process should not be made overly convenient.
While voicing support for the voting centers, Bartholomew County Commissioner Larry Kleinhenz urged the Election Board to take steps that will require all levels of government to share in paying for the new system.
Columbus resident Dennis Baute asked whether the Internet-dependent voting centers would have a backup system in case of technical problems. The new system would require digital poll books linked to all voting centers through the Internet to ensure that people are eligible to vote and vote only once. Bartholomew County information and technology director Jim Hartsook assured the audience that backups already are built into the system.
Some meeting attendees said referendums need to be explained better to voters at the polls.
Hines stressed to the audience that no decision on voting centers has been made. The Nov. 19 hearing was required before approval can be considered by the Election Board, County Council and County Commissioners.
The board itself is required to wait 30 days after the meeting in order to receive additional public comments before scheduling a meeting where members will cast a vote, Hines said. She added that she could provide no estimate when the board might vote on the matter.
As of Monday, almost two weeks after the meeting, no further concerns had been received, Hines said.
Voting center timeline
The first vote centers in the United States are established in Larimer County, Colo. Known at the time as creating a “super precinct,” the Fort Collins-area vote centers allow multiple polling locations on Election Day.
After sending a delegation to observe the Colorado vote centers during the midterm election, the Indiana General Assembly authorizes Secretary of State Todd Rokita to select three counties for a vote center pilot program.
Indiana vote centers are used for the first time in Wayne, Tippecanoe and Cass counties on a trial basis.
A study by the Indiana Fiscal Policy Institute concludes every county in Indiana could save money by switching to vote centers.
Based on successes in the pilot program, the Indiana General Assembly approves legislation that allows vote centers to become an option for any county. Later that year, Fayette and Vanderburgh counties file their vote center plans.
Floyd, Blackford, Johnson and Switzerland County file the necessary paperwork to create similar voting systems.
Hancock, Miami and Vigo County announced their intentions to implement vote centers with the Indiana Election Division.
With 12 of 92 Indiana counties now switching from traditional precincts to voting centers, the Bartholomew County Election Board first proposes the system to local county officials.
A committee is formed to research how the vote center system might work in the Columbus area.
Forty people attend a public hearing conducted by the Bartholomew County Election Board to discuss pros and cons of implementing vote centers.
Sources: Bowen Center for Public Affairs, the Indiana Secretary of State’s Office, and the Bartholomew County Election Board.
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