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January 29, 2011

KETZENBERGER: Vote centers save money, add ease

> SOUTHERN INDIANA — Cash-strapped counties are a step closer to being able to cut costs for taxpayers while making it easier to vote.

The Indiana Senate unanimously adopted Senate Bill 32 on Jan. 18. The bill allows each county to create vote centers, which reduce the number of voting machines and poll workers necessary to run an election.

A study released last January by the Indiana Fiscal Policy Institute showed vote centers would save each county in the state money if adopted for use over precinct-based polls. What are vote centers?

They are locations determined by county clerks where any resident can go to vote on election day. Thanks to electronic poll books, each voter’s unique ballot can be produced at any vote center. That centralized poll book is updated immediately, which means a voter cannot cast more than one ballot in the election.

The Senate bill requires counties that adopt vote centers to operate at least one of them the two Saturdays before an election to allow voters to cast in-person absentee ballots. How would the counties save money?

Using vote centers means fewer polling places and that means fewer machines and paid workers, the two most expensive variables in every election.

Three Indiana counties have used vote centers in recent years as pilot projects and all saved money.

Tippecanoe County saved $40,000 in 2007 by consolidating 92 precincts into 20 vote centers. The vote centers were distributed in high-traffic areas such as shopping centers and public buildings throughout the county.

Nearby Cass County saved 50 percent in 2008 when it implemented vote centers. The county clerk consolidated 40 precincts into seven vote centers, sharply reducing the number of machines and people necessary to operate the election.

Wayne County showed how vote centers give clerks the ability to adjust based on an election’s circumstances. The county consolidated 31 precincts into four vote centers for the low-turnout 2007 primary, but it consolidated 68 precincts into eight vote centers for the high-turnout 2008 general election.

How much money could Indiana counties save?

The amount depends on how clerks choose to consolidate precincts, but the IFPI report (available at indianafiscal.org) shows each county could save money by using vote centers. Populous counties will save more than others. Marion County, for instance, would save nearly $308,000 each election by using one vote center staffed by eight poll workers for every 3,000 registered voters. Similarly, Vanderburgh County could save nearly $67,000 per election, Allen County could save $176,000 and Lake County could save more than $397,000.

Savings for smaller counties aren’t as eye-popping, but in the context of smaller budgets are just as meaningful. Jefferson County could save nearly $15,000 and Daviess County more than $18,500 while Blackford County could save more than $7,100. Do vote centers work as well as precincts?

Only Wayne County has reported problems with vote centers, and that was because voters had to wait in long lines the first time the vote centers were used. Senate Bill 32 now goes to the House of Representatives for consideration. Last year a much broader bill that included vote centers, among many other provisions, died after it failed to get a hearing in the House.

At a time when county budgets are constrained, here is legislation that will save money and make voting easier. It is well worth the time and consideration of state representatives.

Ketzenberger is the president of the Indiana Fiscal Policy Institute

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