Indiana is one of several states pioneering vote centers, which are consolidated polling places open to any eligible voter in a locality. Vote centers came into existence in 2003, when Larimer County, Colorado first pioneered the configuration. Today, nine states have laws permitting vote centers, but Indiana was the first to use them on a large scale.
In 2006, the Indiana Secretary of State began a pilot program, allowing counties to test vote centers to determine if they would be an effective means of election day administration. Three counties, Cass, Tippecanoe, and Wayne, participated in the program from 2007 to 2010, and their reports prompted the state legislature to pass a bill during its 2011 session to enable all counties to adopt the vote center model as their permanent method for voting.
The law allows counties to transition to vote centers upon the unanimous vote of the county board of elections. No state approval is required; the county just has to file a plan with the Indiana Election Division. Already, two more counties, Vanderburgh and Fayette, submitted plans for making vote centers of their own. As required by the legislation, the plans address every detail of the new configuration, from the vote centers’ geographic locations to the number of staff that will man them on election day. The legislature presumably wanted to ensure that the counties would carefully prepare for the amount of people who could turn up at any vote center.
Despite the inherent risk of overcrowding and the possible confusion involved with educating people for the initial transition to vote centers, voters and administrators alike seem to prefer the new system. For officials, the cost of running an election based on the vote center model is a major selling point. During a panel discussion on vote centers, the county clerks from the three counties involved in the pilot program shared their views on the configuration. The panelists agreed that by reducing the number of polling places, vote centers save money on facilities fees and help overcome the more basic challenge of locating enough HAVA-compliant locations. Furthermore, with fewer polling places, counties do not have to purchase, store, transport, and maintain as many voting machines.
The county clerks also described some nonfinancial benefits. They reported that the decreased demand for election day staff has been a positive result because it was always a challenge to find enough people to work at all of the polling places. With vote centers, which almost halved the number of required personnel, not only are there an adequate number of volunteers, but resources can be centralized to better train those poll workers. This provides more opportunities for one-on-one training, which is particularly important given the increasing technological complexity of voting machines and electronic poll books.
For the voter, the benefits relate to convenience. Because anyone living within a county can use any vote center, there is no risk that someone will go to the wrong polling place and get turned away. Or as the Larimer County Election Website puts it, “there is no wrong place to vote.” Voters enjoy this freedom of choice, and they also like that they can go to the polls with friends and relatives who live outside of their old precincts. Sharing transportation and participating together in a civic duty helps increase peoples’ sense of community. In fact, voters in the pilot counties liked the new system so much that, according to the panelists, they were calling their county clerk’s offices asking how they could help support permanent legislation.
With reported benefits for voters and administrators alike, Indiana could witness more of its counties turning over to vote centers in the near future. This could have broader implications than even expected because statistics suggest that vote centers increase turnout by as much as 15% in counties that adopt the model. Perhaps vote centers can help revitalize democratic participation by engaging more voters in a more efficient electoral process.
Shanna Reulbach is a second-year student at William and Mary Law.