Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

January 27, 2014

Parties far apart on vote center concept

Number of centers is key sticking point

By Scott Smith Kokomo Tribune
Kokomo Tribune

---- — Two new members were sworn in to the Howard County Election Board Friday, as Howard County Clerk Kim Wilson gears up for the 2014 elections.

One thing Wilson won’t be worrying about, at least this year, is the idea of establishing vote centers in Howard County.

The idea would involve consolidating polling places down to a much smaller number of universal polling sites as a way to save the county money each election.

Miami County went to the system last year, but Howard County officials scrapped one attempt last year after discovering state guidelines hadn’t been followed.

That Republican-led proposal would have narrowed the number of voting centers to 10 throughout the county, drawing objections from Democrats who noted that only four of the centers would be inside city limits.

One of the city sites was to be inside the Howard County Courthouse, meaning voters would have been required to take off their belts and jackets and empty their pockets at the courthouse metal detectors.

Howard County Democratic Party chairman David Tharp said Friday he’d prefer somewhere between 22 and 25 vote centers countywide, while Howard County Republican Party chairman Craig Dunn said 10 centers “would be plenty.”

“If you’re going to have 25 voting centers, we might as well stick to what we’ve got,” Dunn said. “We agreed to 10, and we’re going to have 10, as long as I’m chairman and my election board member agrees with me.”

The vote center concept would allow any voter in the county to vote at any vote location. Currently, voters must travel to a specific polling place to cast a vote.

In the 2012 election, there were 37 polling places in Howard County open on Election Day. With vote centers, each voting place would be open for at least a week leading up to Election Day, although Tharp said he’d like to see a 10-day window.

Getting 10 locations willing to be open to the public for voting for that length of time could be difficult, Dunn said.

In addition, the Republicans want union halls excluded as voting centers, while the Democrats want churches excluded. That much, at least, has been agreed on by both sides.

Other issues, such as Tharp’s request to have the centers located along public transit lines, don’t seem to be deal-breakers, but the number of polling places could be.

“We want the centers in walkable, neighborhood-focused areas, not separated from population centers by state roads,” Tharp said. “They should be located in familiar, accessible buildings.”

By law, the centers would have to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and other regulations from the federal Help America Vote Act would also apply.

The other major issue which could prove potentially divisive is the Democrats’ request to have more than one location for early voting.

Voters can currently cast an early ballot, starting a month before an election, at the Howard County Courthouse.

Dunn wants to leave that system in place, while Tharp has suggested at least four satellite early voting locations should be considered.

When and if the election board returns to the subject of voting centers, newly appointed Republican member Ann Harrigan and newly appointed Democrat member Derrick Steele will represent the parties. Wilson administered the oath of office to both Steele and Harrigan Friday.

Scott Smith can be reached at 765-454-8569, at scott.smith@kokomotribune.com, or on Twitter @JasonSSmith1.