The news came out about a week ago, that DC was considering moving to voting centers for the special election in April. Since then, there’s been a lot to say on both sides of the issue, and some excellent points made by both sides about what it would mean to cut the budget for elections in the city.
Some have said that cutting back on voting is cutting back on government legitimacy. If this new plan to move to voting centers dramatically alters the turnout of an election, or if the placement of the polls is such that prevents people from attending, I might agree with that contention. Instead, it seems to be a way to increase turnout while also lowering costs.
A special election would cost $829,000 under the current situation, and would replace three vacancies in the current electoral structure: Kwame Brown’s At-Large seat, Sekou Biddle’s Ward 4 BOE seat, and William Lockridge’s Ward 8 BOE seat. The proposal from DC BOEE for 16 voting centers, 2 in each ward, would drop the cost to $624,000, a savings of $200,000. The current plan, according to Alysoun McLaughlin at DC BOEE, would be to staff those centers with the help of some election voting services for a three day period and allow voting from any of the polling locations for the citywide race.
The polling places need to fit three criteria for DC BOEE: they must be ADA-compliant, they must be owned by the city, and they must be on the city’s data network. The first of these requirements is self-explanatory, the second and third help to limit costs of conducting a 3-day election with electronic pollbooks while also protecting the integrity of the election through tying together all of the pollbooks throughout the city.
View DCBOEE Proposed Voting Centers in a larger map
But, will it work?
Larimer County in Colorado is home to 250,000 people across 153 former precincts and 2,600 square miles. Starting in 2002, they moved to centralized vote centers. It was the work of Scott Doyle, who came to the county as Chief Deputy Clerk in 2000, and saw all the trouble that they had with same-day registration. Any fixes needed in the neighborhood polling places had to be accomplished in the courthouse, which meant that though the polls closed at 9pm, the courthouse closed at 7pm, locking out many voters. This didn’t sit well with the trained engineer, and he sought out to make some changes in the system. His boss, the elected Clerk and Recorder of Larimer County didn’t see the value in upsetting the apple cart, but he encouraged Doyle to run to take his place when his term was up.
Doyle ran for Clerk in 2002, and won the seat, and started on his plan to unbreak the system (fix is probably not the wisest term to use when talking about elections). Doyle’s solution, to centralize voting to fewer, more concentrated locations was met with concern. Would turnout work? How would people handle the shift?
“My newspapers and local media said, ‘look at this crazy clerk,’ but eventually, everyone came around,” said Doyle in an interview on Tuesday.
It’s not hard to see why.
In the 2004 General Election, Larimer County saw more than 94% of the registered voters cast their ballots. The figures for municipal elections are a little more modest, yes, but an increase from 33% in 2001’s coordinated election to 42% in 2003’s coordinated election also coincides with the setup of voting centers.
Larimer County, though, is both rural and urban, with Fort Collins supporting a number of urban citizens. That model doesn’t necessarily hold up to a more city-based assessment. Henderson, Nevada has switched their electoral model toward voting centers, after then City Clerk Monica Martinez Simmons learned about the voting center model. Simmons said of the community support, “we saw that we were saving money, that we were aligning our resources in a better way.”
The resource issue is certainly one to consider, as well. Right now, it requires 1,800 people to work the precincts on election day, most of whom have less than half a day of training. 16 vote centers would require approximately 400 people, according to DCBOEE. That would mean that the staff running the election could be staffed by the most experienced poll workers, the precinct captains and assistant captains. Fewer polling places would also mean fewer locations for poll-watching, and better yet, fewer locations to retrieve machine tapes and electronic polling keys from, making the election more easily observable for both sides, and more easily counted.
Henderson saw significant increases in their turnout in municipal elections, from 7% in 2005, to 11% in 2007, and then to 14% in 2009. The steps for success in Simmons’ eyes were the placement of the electoral centers, and spending a lot of time communicating with the community.
WIth good community communication, the voting center model could work for the District. It would require setting good locations, and a good public communications plan to make sure that people trusted the new process, but theres’ no reason that the District couldn’t use this plan, especially in the face of difficult economic times. A 15% savings on an increase in turnout? That sounds like savings, to me.
The plan goes first before the DCBOEE’s board of directors today at 10:30am, followed by a council hearing at 2:30pm. It’s very possible, and I’d even go so far as to say probable, that the council will come up with the extra funds to pay for the whole precincted election, but the voting center idea has merit, and should be considered.