Voting centers, here we come

Eight voting center locations where Columbus voters will cast ballots for mayor, city council and clerk-treasurer in the May 5 primary have been selected.

The list is far different from what was originally proposed.

Bartholomew County Clerk Jay Phelps said some of the precinct locations used in previous city elections — and considered in the debut of voting center locations — were not large enough to hold the number of voting machines each center must have.

Only two of six sites were kept from the original voting center plan, with six new locations added.

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The May city primary will be the first in which Bartholomew County voters can go to any voting center location, no matter what their precinct or city address is, and cast a ballot.

In contrast, voters in the 2011 city election cast ballots in 33 precincts which had two or three voting machines each. In May, the eight voting centers will each have 12 machines.

The voting center concept has been discussed for several years in Bartholomew County, as well as other parts of the state.

After a trial test in three counties, the path was cleared in 2011 for any of Indiana’s 92 counties to make the change.

Making the switch

Phelps said as the process of implementing the new system moved forward locally, the number of sites and locations also went through their own changes.

“Originally we had six places, and now we’re going to eight because we want to have good coverage,” he said. “I would rather start off with too many than not enough.”

For various reasons, some sites were eliminated as voting center locations — including the Mill Race Center and the Bartholomew County 4-H Fairgrounds.

Phelps said the senior center is usually tight on parking and the fairgrounds has poor Internet connectivity, factors that would hinder the voting process for residents.

“We want folks to know the way you’ve voted since the beginning of time is changing,” he said.

It might be more convenient for voters to cast ballots close to work, or on their lunch hours, for example, on Election Day. And fewer voting locations reduces the number of poll workers needed, saving taxpayers money.

Phelps said the final cost of new poll books and software updates for voting machines is about $180,000. However, using the new technology in 2015 and 2016 will allow the county to save a combined amount of about $62,000 by not having to staff as many polling places, he said.

“This will pay for itself. There’s no question about it,” he said. “If it’s a success and we stick with it, it will save money.”

Phelps and Shari Lentz, supervisor of voter registration and elections, toured locations with a Verizon Wireless Wi-Fi hotspot, a voting machine and measuring tape to determine which sites would be the best fit for the machines.

They tested the hotspot’s strength at each voting site to make sure residents would be able to successfully register at each voting center on one of the county’s electronic polling iPads. The Internet connectivity also allows election officials to determine how many people are voting and where they are voting in real time, Phelps said.

Welcome news

The idea of more flexibility and less headaches at the polls is something Columbus resident and Pastor Mark Oliver said would be welcome news.

Oliver said he waited in line for hours to cast his ballot in the county’s 2012 presidential election.

“I think it’s great. I think that will work out better for people who aren’t interested in standing in line so long,” he said. “Hopefully, it runs smoothly.”

For its 2012 presidential election, Johnson County made the switch to voting centers, something Deputy Clerk Reagan Higdon said appeared intimidating at the time.

But the change has allowed county election officials to be more flexible with how many machines are used to handle larger or smaller voting crowds at any voting center.

“From what we hear back from our voters, they seem to like it quite a bit,” she said. “It seems to streamline things. As far as us getting things put together prior to the election, it seems to help us here in the office.”

She said her staff used to have to put materials together for more than 130 precincts, but now that the county has implemented voting centers, staff members only have to prepare materials for 22 sites.

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Centralized voting centers will have 12 machines, instead of two to three machines that had been based at each voting precinct, all able to securely hold ballots for all of the county’s 66 precincts.

Each voting center also would have two iPad poll books that would eliminate the need to use computer paper printouts during the voting check-in process.

Using iPad poll books reduces the opportunity for human error because a voter’s driver’s license, identification card or passport can be scanned in to quickly process correct voter information.

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2003: The first vote centers in the United States were established in Larimer County, Colorado. Known at the time as creating a “super precinct,” the Fort Collins area vote centers allowed voters to cast ballots from one of multiple locations on Election Day.

2006: After sending a delegation to observe the Colorado vote centers during 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 concluded every county in Indiana could save money by switching to vote centers.

2011: Based on successes in the pilot program, the Indiana General Assembly approved legislation that allowed vote centers to become an option for any county. Later that year, 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 with the Indiana Election Division.

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 county.

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 ended without any opposition voiced regarding the concept of vote centers.

Jan. 22, 2014: The Bartholomew County Election Board unanimously endorsed a resolution that called for establishing vote centers in time for the 2015 city election.

Feb. 10, 2014: Resolution unanimously approved by the Bartholomew County Commissioners.

Feb. 11, 2014: Resolution unanimously 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.