Friday, October 10, 2008

Voting Centers - A Time That Has Come for Marion County/Indianapolis

In 2002, when I embarked on my unsuccessful run for Marion County Clerk, I proposed the idea of moving to the use of voting centers rather than the precinct polling place system. The voters I explained the concept to loved it. When I tried to explain it to party workers though the reception was less than enthusiastic. They could not get their heads around how the concept would work. Within a few years though Indiana began experimenting with the idea, which have been a success trial runs in Lafayette and Richmond. Secretary of State Todd Rokita is a strong advocate of voting centers.

The precinct voting system used in Indiana dates from the day of the horse and buggy. The idea behind the system was to establish a polling place in virtually every neighborhood so voters wouldn't travel very far to vote. It made sense when travel was difficult and volunteerism was high. It was not difficult to staff polling places with full boards of Republicans and Democrats.

Times have changed, but our old precinct based voting system has not. If you think about it, it's a crazy system. Very early on the morning of November 4th, thousands of people across the county will head out in the pitch dark night to schools, churches, apartment buildings, firehouses, etc. Hundreds of inspectors will be lugging boxes, keys in hand to open the machines and set up. The whole system is based on tons of cooperation of Democrats and Republicans and a high degree of volunteerism which does not exist today, not to mention more than a few alarm clocks. Years ago I was told by one of the former clerks that to put on an election the parties and the Marion County Clerk has to essentially recruit 10,000 volunteers.

The problem is we retain a labor intensive system in an era where volunteerism is low. In a county with a population the size of Indianapolis, it is a convoluted system that will inevitably break down. The only question is how much and how often. Former Clerk Republican Doris Anne Sadler and present Clerk Democrat Beth White have seen spectacular failures on Election Day. Many times though, the problem isn't the Clerk, but an antiquated voting system that is not well suited to today's realities.

The idea behind voting centers (Rokita prefers the term "vote centers" which is probably more grammatically correct though doesn't roll off the tongue as well as "voting centers") is to drastically reduce the labor required to put on an election. Basically there will be several voting locations set up throughout the county. While the locations will be substantially fewer, they will be larger and capable of accommodating more voters. Voters can choose to go to any location. They can vote on their lunch hour, at the mall, or when they just picked up the kids at the babysitter. The voter gives the registration officials his or her name or voter registration card and is given a ballot for the races where that voter lives. Computers at the voting centers linked together by a private network would keep an updated voter registration list of who has voted countywide so you couldn't go from one location and then vote in another. The voting center concept is basically the system the system they are using for absentee voting downtown in the Indianapolis City-County building, just with more locations It is a system that has performed well in the places where it has been tested. Voters love it.

To combat poll worker labor shortage, Marion County recently decided to consolidate the precincts. That, of course, made them larger with more voters. The idea behind the change was that the larger the precincts, the fewer people needed to put on the election. I thought it was a good recognition of the problem, but a bad solution to that problem. High turnout elections, like the one coming up on November 4th, are going to be a nightmare for poll workers in the newly consolidated precincts and at their voting locations. The problem is that it still clings to an out-dated precinct voting system when a much better alternative, with voting centers, could have been adopted.

It is long past time for Marion County to put away the past and adopt a voting center system. If you're interested in the issue see the explanation for voting centers provided by Tippecanoe (Lafayette) County.


Anonymous said...

I feel sorry for the election clerk at every election. I don't know how they handle the logistics of all those precincts. Would be my worst nightmare.

Paul K. Ogden said...

Melyssa, it is a nightmare. It's easy to jump on Sadler and White, but the fact is they are running very antiquated, labor-intensive voting system. I think they can be faulted though for a lack of creativity to the problems with the old neighborhood precinct voting system. We need a creative approach to voting in the 21st century. Instead we're stuck with a system that has its roots in the 19th century.