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Column: Vote centers integral to turnout, participation

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When hundreds of people stood in line to vote at popular sites in Greenwood and the Center Grove area, many Johnson County voters had to wait from half-an-hour to an hour and occasionally more to cast ballots on Election Day.

Long waits at polling places can discourage people from voting in the next election, so Johnson County election officials need to carefully assess the successes and failures of this year’s election.

Clearly, one of the successes was early voting. About one in every three county residents who voted in the fall election cast their ballots early. Johnson County Clerk Sue Anne “Susie” Misiniec said she will continue to encourage voters to cast ballots before Election Day.

About 21,000 of the 57,949 Johnson County voters who cast ballots this year voted early, marking a significant increase in early voting. About 11 percent of ballots cast were before Election Day during the last presidential election in 2008.

Over time, even more people are likely to vote early once they get used to vote centers that allow them to vote at any polling site anywhere in the county instead of a designated site close to home, Misiniec said.

But early voting will solve only part of the problem. As many people out of tradition or habit will vote on Election Day itself, lines still will be possible at the polls.

Voters had to wait at popular polling sites such as the Greenwood Community Center and Greenwood Christian Church, where more than 3,000 people cast ballots. More than 2,000 voters cast ballots at other busy sites, including the Clark Pleasant library, the White River Township trustee’s office and Mount Auburn United Methodist Church.

Fewer than 500 people voted at less crowded sites in the southern part of the county, including the American Legion Post in Edinburgh, Fair Haven Christian Church near Trafalgar and the Amity Fire Station.

So the issue of lines appears to be in the more populous northwestern part of the county, which should not be a surprise. In the 2008 primary and general election, long lines were common at precinct polling places in that area, especially sites that included more than one precinct.

After this year’s primary, the first test of the voting-center concept, Misiniec increased the number of sites and the number of voting machines at most sites. This appeared to help speed the process.

Now the backup appears to be in getting voters logged in so they can move on to the voting machines.

One solution Misiniec and her staff already are looking at is using scanners to read voters’ driver’s licenses, which will bring up information more quickly. You won’t have to wait as long for the poll worker to type in your name and find your precinct. That should help.

Another option that should be considered would be to increase the number of electronic log books at the busy centers. This will require additional hardware in the form of laptop computers and more personnel. But the investment would be worth it.

Another modification already under consideration would be to open early voting sites at the Indiana Masonic Home and Franklin United Methodist Community. The sites don’t have enough parking for the general public and thus wouldn’t be good sites for Election Day. But opening early voting centers for a day or two at those retirement communities would help ensure that residents who aren’t able to get out as easily are able to vote.

Voters appear to be accepting the concept of voting centers. So there appears to be no need to return to precinct-based polling places.

The problem of long lines at polling places appears to be most acute during heated presidential primaries — such as that in 2008 between then-Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton — and the presidential elections themselves. So the 2014 midterm elections will give Johnson County officials a chance to further refine the voting process before we face the 2016 presidential year.

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