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Local Republican officials are praising what they consider to be Secretary of State Connie Lawson's long overdue reduction of Lake County's precincts.

"I think it will make elections more efficient. I am a big supporter of the consolidation of the precincts," Cedar Lake Town Council President Randy Niemeyer, a Republican, said Thursday.

The General Assembly ordered Lawson earlier this year to merge Lake County precincts with fewer than 600 active voters to save money on Election Day equipment and staffing costs.

Her office unveiled Wednesday a plan to reduce Lake County from 523 to 353 precincts, beginning in 2019. She predicts it will save county taxpayers $117,300 annually.

The plan enraged Democratic Party leaders who complain the cuts were made at the expense of their north county strongholds. East Chicago will lose 14 precincts, Hammond 33 and Gary 54.

Democrats argued the consolidation disenfranchises minority voters who have few resources to travel greater distances to vote.

"Cedar Lake has some of the larger precincts in Lake County and people seem to find their way to the polling place. Our voter turnout is as good as any community's," Niemeyer responded Thursday.

Lawson's plan would reduce Cedar Lake's precincts from 10 to 9. Niemeyer said that precinct needed to be eliminated. "We are happy to have the larger precincts."

Dan Dernulc, chair of the Lake County Republican Party, said Democrats objections are cynically partisan, having more to do with their loss of  Democratic precinct committee members than to any impact on voters. "I think they are looking at this strictly from a power standpoint."

Lawson said on average, the newly consolidated polling places will move only a mile from their current location and many of the new sites are close to public transportation.

"We have people in south Lake County that have to drive as far as eight miles to vote. I don't think there will be any pain to voters," Dernulc said.

Dana Dumezich, vice chairman of the Lake County Republican Party, said the consolidation will make elections "efficient, consistent and cost-effective" for voters and taxpayers.

"It will also make the precincts equally representative of Lake County's shifting population," Dumezich said. "All consolidations were done in a clear, identifiable and objective manor that is consistent across the county. Political tomfoolery and gerrymandering were not allowed in the consolidation process."

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Griffith Town Council President Rick Ryfa, a Republican, argued the loss of Gary precincts shouldn't be surprising given decades of out-migration of poluation from Gary, Hammond and East Chicago residents to the suburbs.

"Some of these precincts were created when Gary had a population of 150,000 or more. If precincts are supposed to be increased based on population, they should also decrease them based on population."

Griffith is slated to lose four precincts under the new plan. Ryfa said, "It will be a minor inconvenience. People will eventually get used to the change.

Dernulc said he had been pressing Democrats for five years to agree to a precinct consolidation, but Democrats preferred to stall and raise objections rather than working with Republicans.

"We have been in this process for years and they didn't submit anything. They argue that this disenfranchises, but where was their plan?"

Schererville Town Councilman Kevin Connelly, a Republican, said "I am all for efficiency and I applaud Secretary of State Connie Lawson's work as diligent and fair. Saving taxpayer dollars is certainly a positive step. I don't see a downside."

Schererville would lose seven precincts.

Winfield Town Clerk-Treasurer Rick Anderson, a Republican, said, "The issues are for communities north of U.S. 30. We are a rapidly growing community and split a few years ago from one precinct to four, so we have no issues."

"This is an example of the good work our Secretary of State does.  I know it was a great thing and we need to move forward. I hope the Democrats come to the same conclusion," Dernulc said. 

Lake County Democratic Chairman James Wieser said Wednesday he expects a Democrats to challenge the precinct changes in court.

State Sen. Rick Niemyer, a Lowell Republican, said he had hoped Democrats would cooperate in a local precinct consolidation plan, but he said they have dragged their feet for years, so he asked the secretary of state to help and thanks her for her plan.

"They should take the savings from this and put it into having more early voting sites," Niemeyer said. 

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Lake County Reporter

Bill has reported in Lake County since 1972 after graduating from Indiana University. He has worked for The Times since 1997, covering the courts and local government during much of his tenure. Born and raised in New Albany, Ind., he is a native Hoosier.