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Voting may get more efficient, but farther from home

Standing amid ballot scanners used in Maricopa County elections, Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett discusses legislation he is pushing to allow counties to establish centralized voting centers that would replace traditional precinct polling places. (Photo by Josh Coddington/Arizona Capitol Times)

Standing amid ballot scanners used in Maricopa County elections, Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett discusses legislation he is pushing to allow counties to establish centralized voting centers that would replace traditional precinct polling places. (Photo by Josh Coddington/Arizona Capitol Times)

Arizona is taking a first step into a money-saving way to run elections, but a representative of a politically powerful seniors organization is cautioning that the change may confuse, and thus disenfranchise, some voters.

If the Legislature passes HB2303 and Gov. Jan Brewer signs it into law, a longstanding tradition of where people vote may pass into history.

Out will be neighbors joining neighbors at the school gymnasiums, the church halls and the fire stations that have been the around-the-corner polling places.

In will be Wal-Marts and grocery stores.

The bill would give county boards of supervisors the authority to create centralized voting centers to replace the traditional precinct polling places. Voting centers require fewer locations because every site can accommodate every voter regardless of precinct.

The bill, being pushed by Secretary of State Ken Bennett and supported by elections officials around the state, got unanimous approval in the House Judiciary Committee on Feb. 3 and will go next to the House Rules Committee.

And although experts and election officials around the country give high marks to voting centers for increasing voter turnout and reducing costs by having fewer votingplaces, there is the question of disenfranchisement.

“It strikes me that the provisions in the bill about informing voters are weak, so it seems there could be a lot of confusion come Election Day, and that could lead to disenfranchisement,” said Stephen Jennings, Arizona lobbyist for AARP. “If people go down to their regular voting places and they’re not there on Election Day, it’s likely a lot of them wouldn’t make it to the new places to vote.”

In Washington, D.C., there is concern that voters there won’t adjust well if the city goes to voting centers for an April special election.

In 2010, the city’s first attempt at early voting flopped. Only 20 percent of registered voters turned out in the primary, and even fewer voted in the general, said Alysoun McLaughlin, spokeswoman for the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics.

Using voting centers is “a big change, and it’s not something that the city has had a chance to really think about,” McLaughlin said.

The City Council prefers a traditional election, with voters at their precinct polling places, but McLaughlin said there isn’t enough money to hold it that way.

The city would go from 143 precincts to 16 voting centers, a change that could bring a savings of up to $250,000, McLaughlin said.

She said the discussion on shifting to voting centers has focused mostly on the savings.

Bennett said there are steps to take to prevent disenfranchisement.

He said the bill leaves it to counties to decide when and if they want to switch to the new system, and a proposed amendment would allow for a phase-in.

There are also transportation issues for lower-income voters who might have to travel farther to vote if their precincts are no longer in their neighborhoods, but Bennett said that could be solved by placing voting centers near major bus routes.

“The eventual idea is that in its full concept, anyone in the county will be able to vote at any one of the voting centers,” Bennett said.

Under the proposal, counties could also add voting centers to its system of precinct places.

Robert Stein, a Rice University professor who has studied and consulted on voting centers since their inception in 2003 in Larimar County, Colo., said there is a school of thought that, because of a lack of cars and mass transit, there is less access to the voting centers in urban areas with ethnically diverse and older populations.

“We’ve found that that is simply not true,” Stein said. “We studied it in Lubbock, in Collin (County, Texas) and many of the urban areas and the Denver area, but there is that view.”

Of all the ideas for election reform, voting centers have had the most pronounced effect on turnout and cost savings, Stein said.

“In some respects it’s understanding retail,” Stein said.  “Making the voting experience more convenient, more satisfying, less costly makes sense.”

Stein said voting centers can be at big retailers and grocery stores along major roadways and in other high-traffic areas such as downtowns.

The logic is to put them where the people are during the day so they don’t have to squeeze in voting early in the morning or at the end of a workday.

Stein’s studies of Colorado and Texas counties have found a 4 percent to 8 percent increase in turnout, with the largest increase coming among habitual non-voters.

Voters can cast a ballot on the way to work, at the lunch hour or while running errands during the day.

“What we found was the voters love it,” said Heather Maddox, a Democrat who is co-director of the Tippecanoe County, Ind., Board of Elections and Registration.

The Indiana Legislature has passed a bill that would give counties the option to use voting centers, and it awaits the signature of Gov. Mitch Daniels Jr.

Tippecanoe and two other counties in Indiana have run a pilot program since 2007.

There was an estimated savings of 45 percent in the 2010 general election and an anticipated savings of 37 percent for the May 3 municipal primary, according to Maddox. The county went from 91 precincts to 20 voting centers.

Maddox said her county prevented disenfranchisement by conducting a massive public information campaign when it began the pilot program and sends every active voter a card with a listing of the locations.

She said the transition went smoothly and the system continues to work well.

Yavapai County, Bennett said, has already begun the process by using electronic poll books to verify voters’ eligibility. The electronic books provide real-time voter information and are key to the success of voting centers.

Phoenix has already shifted to voting centers and will hold its first election under the new system in August, when voters choose their mayor and representatives in four council districts.

According to Cris Meyer, interim Phoenix city clerk, the city will have 26 voting locations compared with 128 under the traditional system. The change will save about $250,000 a year, Meyer said.

“I love this idea, and I think it will enhance voting,” said Rep. Tom Chabin, a Flagstaff Democrat who voted for the measure in the Judiciary Committee.

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