BENTONVILLE -- Benton County officials last week endorsed a plan to adopt vote centers in place of traditional polling places.
"I'm really impressed," Kevin Harrison, justice of the peace for District 5, said during the discussion of the plan by the Committee of the Whole. "It's great because you can be anywhere in the county and go vote."
The committee voted to send the proposal supporting the vote center to the Quorum Court for its Nov. 19 meeting.
The plan being considered will reduce the number of voting sites from 67 to 46 and end constraints on where voters can cast ballots. Under state law, if a voting center plan is adopted, voters will be able to vote at any of the approved locations on election day and not be required to vote at the polling place assigned to the precinct in which they live. Russ Anzalone, Election Commission chairman, said in conjunction with the early voting period, when the rules are similar and voters can use any early voting site, the vote center plan should make it easier for residents to cast ballots. Anzalone pointed to the low turnout in the annual school elections -- where less than one percent of registered voters cast ballots this year -- and some other smaller elections and said the commission is aiming to boost turnout by making it easier for people to vote.
"By having the vote centers, hopefully, this will encourage more people to vote because they will have access to any polling place," Anzalone said.
Kim Dennison, election coordinator, told the committee Benton County will get another 54 voting machines from Garland County, which is participating in a pilot program for the state testing the next generation of voting machines at the March 1 party primary. If the pilot program is a success, Dennison told the committee the state could approve the new machines for use in Arkansas' 75 counties by the middle of next year. For the March 1 primary, she said. The county's existing equipment, augmented by the additional voting machines and the use of electronic poll books, will make the vote center plan work.
Dennison said the county is buying 125 electronic poll books that will be used now and also in conjunction with the new voting machines once they are approved. Using electronic poll books is one of the requirements for the adoption of a vote center plan. The poll books replace paper books with lists of voters names and voter information and will be tied into a live database showing which ballot the voter should receive. Electronic poll books also will show in real time if a person already has voted in an election, reducing the chance of someone casting multiple ballots. The electronic poll books and additional voting machines should reduce the time voters spend waiting in lines, Anzalone said.
Anzalone also told the committee the vote center plan should cut the county costs in handling elections. He said the vote centers will require fewer poll workers and the county will need fewer paper ballots. The Commission estimates the saving will be about $41,500 for the 2016 primary and general elections.
The plan had been presented to the county's Legislative Committee on Nov. 9 and was well-received. Michelle Chiocco, justice of the peace for District 10, did question the elimination of paper ballots in the plan and the Election Commission approved a modification Tuesday to have paper ballots available on election day in the Benton County Clerk's Office in Bentonville.
Several justices of the peace said the county and the Election Commission will need to work on getting information about the changes out to the public in advance of the March 1 primary. Anzalone said the commission was already making plans for a "media blitz" using newspaper, television and radio advertising. He also said the commission will work with the county, civic groups, voter education organizations and anyone else interested in spreading the word.
"We will do everything we possibly can to make people aware of this," he said.
"It will be a change from what we've always done," Tom Allen, justice of the peace for District 4, said. "It's critical that we get the information out there."
Vote Center Rules
Vote centers were authorized in Arkansas by Act 1389 of 2013. The Secretary of State's Office has established a set of rules for vote centers detailing how counties may adopt the program. The law requires the quorum court approve the plan in any county wanting to make the changes. The county plan is then submitted to the Secretary of State's Office for review and approval by the state. Once state approval is obtained, the county's quorum court may adopt an ordinance establishing the vote centers.
Source: Arkansas Secretary of StateGeneral News on 11/18/2015
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