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Officials mull voting centers

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Clay County Clerk Victoria Wheeler
Somewhere down the line, Clay County polling places may be consolidated.

Recently, the state legislature passed a bill opening up the possibility for all Indiana counties to establish vote centers for Election Day.

Currently the bill is waiting to be signed by Governor Mitch Daniels, but local officials are already looking into the possibilities vote centers present.

"I can see where establishing vote centers would save money," Clay County Clerk Vickie Wheeler told The Brazil Times. "Staffing costs would be a big reduction because we have to have seven poll workers at each of the county's 23 precincts during an election."

Wheeler said she and Deputy Clerk Beth Mallinak have been looking at the options of having two vote centers, which would comply with the bill's stipulation of having one vote center for every 10,000 registered voters.

"We could have more than just two, but that is the absolute minimum with our current total of registered voters, which is about 19,000," Wheeler said. "Right now, we are looking at the buildings in the county that are big enough and have the required capabilities to utilize for an election."

She added the two high schools (Northview and Clay City) are major possibilities, but parking and students in classes are important issues officials are considering before making a final determination.

"There are a lot of things to think about, and we are looking at everything," she said.

In 2006, Public Law 164-2006, Section 119 permitted the establishment of pilot vote centers, which the Secretary of State designated Tippecanoe, Cass and Wayne counties to test out its effectiveness. Those counties sought five characteristics in choosing sites for the vote centers, including:

* Large parking lot,

* On a bus route or large thoroughfare,

* Wired for Internet capabilities,

* Floor plan conducive to the flow of foot traffic, and

* Handicapped accessibility.

Wheeler told The Brazil Times those characteristics have already ruled out some potential sites in Clay County.

"Internet capabilities are a major factor in figuring out where we could create a vote center," she said. "For example, the Clay County 4-H Fairgrounds would be a great site because of its size and being on State Road 59, but it does not currently have Internet."

In January 2010, the Indiana Fiscal Policy Institute released a study of the fiscal impact vote centers would have in Indiana, which found all 92 counties would save money with consolidated voting locations.

According to the study, Clay County expends $33,600 for a precinct-based election, while the cost to conduct an election with vote centers would be $19,379. The study also shows Clay County is one of only five counties in the state which currently has each of its precincts vote at unique locations.

Mallinak told The Brazil Times the county currently has 72 poll machines, three of which are at the Clay County Courthouse for early voting purposes, while the other 69 are distributed among the precincts.

"In looking at possibly having two vote centers, we think we could cut that number down to probably 35 or 40 to make sure we have enough to keep the lines moving so people aren't waiting all day to vote," Wheeler said.

While there appears to be an overall savings for the county, Wheeler told The Brazil Times there also would be an initial cost added should vote centers be established.

"We would have to purchase computers and electronic signature pads for voters to sign, instead of the paper forms, when they come to cast a ballot," she said.

Another aspect officials are looking at, which is not specified in the new bill, is whether or not early voting as a whole would be continued.

According to Section 4 (16) of the bill, "However, a plan must provide for at least one (1) vote center to be established as a satellite office under IC 3-11-10-26.3 on the two (2) Saturdays immediately preceding an election day."

"The bill specifies voting on the two Saturdays prior to an election must be open at a satellite office, but does not say if early voting will keep going the way it has in recent years," Wheeler said. "That will be a huge factor into if we create vote centers, which is still only an option, because early voting has been immensely popular the last few years."

While officials have a lot of options and possibilities to consider, the process to establish Clay County as a vote center county is a long one.

First, a hearing has to be conducted to present a draft plan for the centers, followed by a 30-day public comment period. The election board would then have to unanimously approve the order regarding the draft plan.

"The order would then have to be filed with the Indiana Election Division, which also must include separate resolutions approved by the Clay County Commissioners and Clay County Council," Wheeler said.

Indiana Election Division Co-Director J. Bradley King told The Brazil Times voter registration by precinct would not be affected should a county establish vote centers.

"Voters would still be registered according to the precinct they reside," King said. "The results will still have to be split up into the number of votes for each individual precinct as well."

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