Two Arizona counties may have found the future of Election Day

November 16, 2012

As election workers continue counting ballots, officials in two Arizona counties are touting what they say is a better way to run Election Day.

SUE REYNOLDS: The future of voting is to be able to vote anywhere

MARK BRODIE: That’s Sue Reynolds. She’s Yuma County’s Elections Director, and she’s talking about a new system Yuma and Yavapai Counties have used this year, called voting centers. Here’s how they work: instead of having to vote at a specific precinct polling place, residents who cast their ballots in person on Election Day could vote at any of several voting centers. When they show up and check in, they have the option of voting on a touch screen machine, or using a paper ballot, which is printed on the spot, based on where the voter lives.

LESLIE HOFFMAN: We had a really good response because of the convenience. We live in a world of convenience now, people love that.

BRODIE: Leslie Hoffman is the Yavapai County Recorder. Both Yavapai and Yuma Counties started using voting centers during February’s Presidential Preference Election, and continued through August’s primary and this month’s general election. County officials cite an increase in voters who cast their ballots early, which causes a decrease in turnout on Election Day. Yuma County Elections Director Sue Reynolds says her county was able to consolidate 39 polling places into eleven voting centers.

REYNOLDS: Many of the polling sites, because most of the people voted by early ballot, we had no turnout, you know. We would set up a precinct polling site and have nine people show up to vote.

BRODIE: There are some up-front costs of switching from traditional precinct polling places to voting centers, including voting machines and on-demand ballot printers. Yuma County spent about $150,000 to make the switch, plus a $100,000 federal grant. But, supporters say those costs will be outweighed by savings over time, including only printing ballots for voters who will actually fill them out. Lynn Constabile is Yavapai County’s Elections Director.

LYNN CONSTABILE: Going forward, it does save a lot of money in equipment purchases, it saves money in poll worker salaries, deliveries, all kinds of things.

BRODIE: In addition to the cost, there are other potential problems with voting centers. Some of the ballot printers in Yuma County went down on Election Day, causing long lines. There’s also the issue of location – reducing the number of places where people can vote means some people may have to travel farther to do so. And, in presidential elections when turnout is traditionally highest, it also means more voters are funneled into fewer polling places. But Yuma County Elections Director Sue Reynolds says voters still have choices.

REYNOLDS: Considering in 2008 that we had some of our larger precincts with the larger voter registration, we had lines at those precincts, but those voters had no other option. They had to stay there because that was the only place they could cast a ballot. With the vote centers, if they thought the line was too long at one, they went to another.

BRODIE: The two counties that used voting centers this year had one Arizona example to look to. Last year, Phoenix used them for its municipal elections. At the time, Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett expressed support for the concept - last week, he reiterated that.

KEN BENNETT: I’m a fan of voting centers, but they present challenges that have to be worked through, as far as where do you position your voting centers, and how many do you have?

BRODIE: There’s also the issue of provisional ballots. Both Yuma and Yavapai Counties still had them, but they weren’t cast by voters who showed up at the wrong polling place. Again, Yuma County’s Sue Reynolds.

REYNOLDS: That class of provisional voting is non-existent here in Yuma County anymore.

BRODIE: Officials in both Yuma and Yavapai Counties say even with the problems they experienced over the past year, they believe voting centers are the way to go, and hope to spread the word to other counties. A Spokeswoman for the Maricopa County Elections Department, though, says the state’s most populous county has too many ballot styles to be able to print them out on demand. But, voting center supporters say they hope more of Arizona’s counties will make the switch before the 2014 elections.