Chesterton Tribune



Porter County Council questions plan to cut 2018 polling places nearly in half

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The Porter County Election Board is seeking to cut voting locations by nearly half to complement a $1.8 million equipment purchase.

The Election Board appeared before the Porter County Council to discuss plans for polling place consolidation and sought approval to fund the purchase of new voting equipment. Acquiring new equipment has been a chief topic of concern for several months, but polling place consolidation is tied to it, according to Board President David Bengs.

Bengs said the Election Board has taken great care in choosing a new list of polling locations that will help future elections proceed more efficiently and save money in the long run without inconveniencing voters. However, he added that the plan--consolidating 80 polling places down to 46--will only work in conjunction with the improved efficiency of the new equipment. It is the stance of the board that the consolidation must happen if new equipment is purchased--and no one is debating that there are problems with the current equipment, Bengs said.

Bengs reported that the machines which Porter County currently uses have met their lifespan, having been acquired in 2005. They also cause constant problems. “Every year we use that equipment, it fails us,” said Election Office Democratic Director Kathryn Kozuszek. Although Bengs said that rumors of 1.5 percent error in the tabulations for past elections are nothing more than rumor, there nevertheless have been smaller inaccuracies.

In addition, he said, servicing the existing equipment would cost upwards of $190,000, the new machines would be more accessible for voters with disabilities and could make the training process for poll workers easier in the future, and they would eliminate the need for pre-printing ballots, a practice which Kozuszek says costs thousands of dollars in wasted resources each election.

In response to a concern expressed by Council Member Mike Jessen, R-4th--that the new list of polling places relies heavily on schools--Bengs said that schools just tend to already comply with American’s with Disabilities Act requirements and parking requirements for polling places. Bengs also reported that he spoke with administrators at all county public schools, and Valparaiso High School and Portage High School have agreed to close on election day. The other schools he spoke with did not think voting would interrupt their operations.

On the issue of schools, however, Council Member Jeff Larson, R-at large, raised the question of safety. “I’ve always thought it was dangerous bringing the general population into the schools,” he said. “We’ve just got a rope there that barricades the people from going into the rest of the building.”

For his part, Councilman Dan Whitten, D-at large, said that it’s one thing to buy new equipment, but the proposed consolidation is another beast entirely. “We’ve been told this is going to be a cost saving measure, but I have my doubts,” he said, and Whitten demanded more due diligence of the board, including a report on voter turnout for several past elections and a concrete plan for voter education. “We have an election in three months, and I want this to make sense to us,” Whitten said. “Will there be enough time to educate the voters on their new polling locations before May? Are we confident about that?”

Bengs responded that the Board is prepared to spend $30,000 on an “information blitz” that will include mailers, public service announcements and public outreach. But Whitten was skeptical that those efforts would be enough. And while he isn’t against new equipment, the proposal for consolidation took the Council by surprise, and the same thing can’t happen with voters, he said. “I just got handed something that’s cutting our voting locations nearly in half. Our voters have a right to have access to the polls, they have a right to be informed, and I want to make sure it makes sense to them.”

Jessen, Whitten, Larson, and Councilwoman Sylvia Graham, D-at large, agreed new equipment is needed, but Whitten summed up their views on consolidation: “We’re saying we were handed a ball that was tethered to another ball, and we have to make sure that they both make sense.”

The Election Board agreed to gather more information and relay it to the Council, but the Commissioners have the final vote on approving polling locations and their vote on the matter must be unanimous.

The Election Board is scheduled to present its proposal to the Commissioners at their next public meeting, Jan. 30. Council Vice-President Jeremy Rivas, D-2nd, asked that the board provide the council as much information as possible in the interim, so they can confer with the Commissioners before then.


Posted 1/24/2018






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