Chesterton Tribune

 

 

County Election Board to explore voting centers and alternatives in 2017

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By JEFF SCHULTZ

It’s been debated in Porter County almost as much as the chicken or the egg being first, but the County Election Board will revisit the discussion of whether voting centers are the best direction to pursue in getting people to the polls.

A few state representatives, County Council members, election workers, and both GOP and Democrat party chairs attended the board’s meeting on Tuesday to hear and give input for making voting more convenient for voters in future elections. Next year is an off-year, which gives the board more time to explore, said Board President and Republican member David Bengs.

“I think it’s the best time to begin the discussion,” Bengs said.

Making a clarion call for voting centers, State Rep. Mike Aylesworth, R-Hebron, said voting centers make it possible for any registered voter in the county to visit any one of the locations to cast a ballot. As it is now, voters on Election Day must report to their specific precinct voting location and Aylesworth said its difficult for voters who have to be at work or someplace else farther away.

“This is all about increasing voter participation by making it easier,” said Aylesworth, adding that 29 counties in Indiana so far have made the switch to voting centers. “This is what I call forward motion. I see what voting is moving toward. I think it’s the right thing to do.”

For Porter County to move to voting centers, the decision would have to be a joint agreement with the Election Board which would adapt the proposal, the County Board of Commissioners which would approve the concepts and the County Council which would decide the funding.

Bengs asked Aylesworth what perspective the Indiana General Assembly has on voter centers, on whether they would require all counties to have voting centers in the future or would it be left to the counties to decide on their own.

State Rep. Chuck Moseley, D-Portage, who sits as a member of the House of Representative’s Elections Committee, said he supports giving counties local control as the state has done with other matters. He would not be in favor of a mandate, especially an unfunded mandate.

“You don’t want us to make that decision for you,” Moseley told the board. “I think we should allow the county to do as they see fit.”

Moseley said he encourages counties to have open-minded discussions about what is best for them. Deciding in favor of voting centers is usually a long process, he said.

If voting centers are considered for the county, Moseley said officials will have to make sure that they are “geographically” equal in that it should be just as convenient for a Hebron resident to reach a voting center as it is for someone in Portage.

Democratic Election Board member J.J. Stankiewicz and other Democrats in the room expressed skepticism about instituting voting centers and asked Aylesworth why more counties haven’t bought into the concept despite the benefits he claims.

Aylesworth cited the hesitancy by some people to change and differing “political philosophies” as probable reasons.

Porter County’s turnout for this year’s general election was over 62 percent and there were no challenges made or any reason for recounts, Stankiewicz said. He said he sees the system in Porter County as not broken.

Bengs said that even though voting centers may not be the right decision, there can be other steps taken that could make some improvements. One thing seen in this last election was “the huge boon” of early voting and maybe that’s an area that can be studied, he said.

County GOP Chair Michael Simpson said he likes the idea that residents can vote anywhere with voting centers, but supports exploring other options like mail-in ballots.

County Council member Sylvia Graham, D-at large, agreed with Stankiewicz that the County already has a good system and said that if there are changes, she hopes that a paper trail can still be maintained so voters will know that their vote will count.

County Clerk and Election Board member Karen Martin said the County saw 66 percent voter turnout in 2008 but it subsided to 64 percent in the 2012 presidential election and this year was 62 percent. But early voting sites saw a four percent increase so there should be something done to make progress.

Democratic Party Chair for Porter County Jeff Chidester said it is worthwhile to look at all options. He also suggested that the board put a voting center somewhere in the south half of the county. That would take the pressure off the Valparaiso site, where voters were waiting in line longer than an hour to vote, he added.

Voters Registration Democratic Director Kathy Kozuszek said that even though the turnout percentages have decreased, more people voted in 2016. But because voter registrations increased significantly since 2008, it affected the turnout rate.

Kozuszek said she has not supported the concept of voting centers because she hasn’t heard of any place where the turnout rate increased. The one thing that seems to drive voters the most is if there is a high-profile race like this year’s presidential election.

The Election Board will be reconfiguring contracts this next year as the current vendor contract with Election Software and Systems is due to expire.

Stankiewicz said he would like to have the bids for service be very specific as to what the board is seeking. Voters Registration Republican Director Sundae Schoon said the County’s IT Department can help with the details on what is needed.

The board will meet after the start of the new year to have further discussions.

 

Posted 12/15/2016

 

 
 
 

 

 

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