Voting centers offer option to streamline elections

2012-10-14T00:00:00Z 2012-10-14T23:45:04Z Voting centers offer option to streamline electionsBy Bob Kasarda bob.kasarda@nwi.com, (219) 548-4345 nwitimes.com
October 14, 2012 12:00 am  • 

As soon as the busy fall election is behind her, Sundae Schoon said she and other voter officials in Porter County plan to take a fresh look at the possibility of making a switch to voting centers.

The proposal, which has been discussed for many years in the county, would involve replacing the 86 polling places with as few as 12 or 13 voting centers, said Schoon, Republican director at the county voter registration office.

Voters would be eligible to cast ballots at the location of their choice as opposed to being limited to a single site.

There is not the same interest in voting centers in Lake County and the south suburbs of Chicago, but elections officials in those areas said they have been reducing the number of polling places.

Porter County would need far fewer poll workers if they switch to voting centers, thus saving it money on labor and equipment, Schoon said. But Porter County would have to make a costly investment in equipment to make the switch possible, she said.

The current voting machines cannot be programmed to accept more than 10 precincts, which means more machines or new equipment would have to be purchased to be able to provide for voters from 123 precincts at each center, Schoon said. The county would also have to purchase pricey ballot printers for each site, she said.

J.J. Stankiewicz, the lone Democrat on the Porter County election board, said he has an open mind about the proposal, but is concerned the switch would negatively impact voter turnout based on the confusion that resulted during a recent reconfiguration of just a few precincts.

He is also concerned about the lack of transportation options for seniors, yet called concerns about older citizens working the polls a red herring.

"I don't put efficiency over voting," Stankiewicz said.

His concerns are significant in that the three-member county election board must grant unanimous support to the voting center proposal before it can go forward.

Lake County has 336,000 registered voters -- three times as many as Porter County -- which means many more details would have be worked out to switch to voting centers, said Sally LaSota, director of the county's Board of Elections and Voter's Registration.

She knew of no discussions about such a move. But she said the county succeeded last year in reducing the number of polling places from 561 to 527.

Lake County also began testing a new approach this year of combining a number of precincts at four locations and programming the machines there to accept ballots from each, LaSota said.

"It's to get them in and out as quickly as possible," she said.

Similar efforts have been under way across the state line in suburban Cook County, where there are now 33 percent fewer precincts than a decade ago, according to county clerk spokeswoman Courtney Greve.

The number of precincts was cut by 14 percent this year alone, amounting to an estimated savings of $1 million, she said.

Greve did not know of any talks about voting centers, but said the precinct reduction effort is ongoing.

"We always are looking at this," she said.

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