By JOHN KLINE
THE GOSHEN NEWS
ELKHART — Voting at a specified precinct may soon be a thing of the past thanks to a new vote center concept gaining traction with the Elkhart County Election Board.
Wendy Hudson, clerk of the Circuit Court for Elkhart County and member of the election board, provided a detailed rundown of what that vote center concept might look like during the annual Elkhart County Commissioners and County Council Summit held at the Matterhorn Banquet and Conference Center in Elkhart Friday morning.
According to Hudson, legislation was signed in 2011 that gives each Indiana county the option to become a Vote Center county.
Under such a program, traditional polling places would be eliminated and replaced with a designated number of vote centers equally distributed throughout the county. Hudson noted that such vote centers would be open to all eligible voters in the county, essentially allowing voters to cast their ballots at the vote center of their choice, regardless of the precinct in which they live.
“Vote centers allow a voter to cast their ballot at a location that is convenient to them,” Hudson said. “There is no longer a wrong place to vote.”
With more than 120,000 active voters in the county, Hudson said, the county will most likely need one vote center for every 10,000 registered voters, for a total of approximately 13 centers.
Should the county eventually implement such a program, Hudson said one of the first issues to tackle would be determining exactly where each of those 13 vote centers would be located. Such locations would need to be chosen based on a variety of factors and requirements, she said, including space, parking and compliance with Americans With Disabilities Act.
Once the actual vote center locations are determined, Hudson said the next big issue to tackle would be how best to equip those centers with the necessary technology and manpower.
Along those lines, Hudson provided three separate equipment options along with the pros, cons and anticipated cost for each.
Under the first option, the county would use a combination of the county’s current optical-scan and touchscreen machines to equip each vote center at a projected cost of $250,000. Option one was not recommended by Hudson, however, due to the fact that the county’s current equipment is already outdated and will most likely only get the county through one more election before being rendered completely obsolete.
Under option two — Hudson’s top choice for the vote center conversion process — the county would furnish all vote centers with new, state-of-the-art voting units at an estimated cost of $878,000. Those machines would replace all optical-scan and touchscreen equipment that Elkhart County currently owns, and would be able to handle every ballot style within the county, therefore requiring fewer machines at each vote center.
Option three would require the county to go with all touchscreen machines at each vote center at a projected cost of $710,000. Hudson said the county would be able to eliminate all ballot-on-demand printers, effectively eliminating the significant printing cost for paper election-day ballots.
Hudson discouraged the county from going with that option because she feels paper ballots are “a better verifiable paper trail for a possible recount.”
Hudson noted that the county in the past has staffed all 117 of its precinct polling places with five poll workers each, so adoption of the vote center program would drastically reduce the total number of poll workers required. She also believes the adoption of the vote center concept would result in a drastic savings in poll worker pay.
“We would go from spending about $56,000 per election (for poll workers) in a county-wide election,” Hudson said, “to approximately $28,000 per election in a county-wide election.”
Hudson also noted that the vote center concept would result in a decrease in precinct supply kits, a decrease in training cost due to less printed material, and an almost complete elimination of paper ballot waste.
“We have to print ballots for 100 percent of registered voters in the county,” Hudson said. “That’s very expensive when you consider how low our turnout usually is. In a four-year election cycle, we go through about 315,000 unused ballots, at approximately $120,000 of waste.”
Potential test this fall
Hudson has indicated she will test the vote center concept during a potential special election this fall connected to a two-part referendum being sought by the city of Goshen and Goshen Community Schools for the construction of a new Goshen Community Center and various school rehabilitation projects.
While the test will be on a much smaller scale than a regular count-wide election — it will only involve approximately 22,000 registered voters and three vote centers — Hudson said the results of the special election will help to determine if such a concept will work within the county on a grander scale.
“This smaller test will get the voters, the poll workers and the Election Board used to the electronic poll book and procedures we’ll need to use on election day,” Hudson said, “and the rest of the county will be watching to see if we can conduct this successfully for Elkhart County.”
In addition to the planned test, Hudson said she has also formed a study committee made up of experienced poll workers, technology specialists and others with expertise in the voting process that have been tasked with studying the pros and cons of the system. Several public meetings will also be held in the coming months in order to gather public input, she said, following which a plan for the county-wide vote center concept will be drafted and submitted to the state for approval.