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Editorial: Planning for voter turnout problematic

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When Johnson County adopted voting centers, one of the arguments was that fewer workers would be required than under the precinct system.

But beyond operating a minimum number of polling sites, the state set no rules about how many voting centers the county would need to operate. So it should come as no surprise that county election officials are looking at reducing the number of sites for the May 6 primary.

This year’s election will be the first non-presidential election since vote centers were implemented in the county in 2012. Voters will cast ballots in eight contested races in May to determine which candidates will appear on the fall ballot. All but one of those races will be on the Republican ticket. Contests range from township positions to a seat in Congress.

Johnson County Clerk Sue Anne Misniec said eight contested races is more than the county typically has in a non-presidential election year. She expects a lower turnout for this election, which is typical for a non-presidential primary. As a result, she said, officials are considering cutting the number of early voting sites from six to three.

The high number of contested Republican races should draw voters to the polls because the winner could end up being the person who takes office, Misiniec said. If Democrats don’t find a candidate willing to run for a position, the winner in the primary would be unopposed and automatically win, she said.

Democrats will vote on only one contested race. Three candidates are running for the nomination to be the candidate for U.S. representative in District 9. If that race weren’t on the ballot, the county wouldn’t offer a Democrat ballot in May.

In addition, Misiniec said, the county plans to set up polling sites before Election Day at the county’s three large retirement communities because election board members think residents didn’t have easy enough access to polling sites.

“The public can come in and vote, but it will be primarily the residents of those communities and their employees. We’re reaching out to them to make a difference and make it a little easier for them,” she said.

Misiniec said the county originally planned to locate vote centers at the retirement centers, but the plan was scrapped because none had enough parking. That meant residents had to be bused to polling sites or election workers had to bring absentee ballots to them.

Both moves are good steps by the county. Reducing the number of polling places should save money without significantly impacting turnout. And operating early-voting sites at the major retirement centers compensates for those institutions losing their precinct voting stations and should make it easier for the residents to vote, especially since many residents have mobility issues.

Voting centers offer flexibility not only for voters but also for the people who run the elections. That flexibility allows election officials to make adjustments that weren’t possible with the precinct-voting system.

Johnson County is taking the correct course in considering adjusting the number of voting centers based on anticipated turnout. And if decisions made for the primary negatively affect turnout, then adjustments can be made for the fall general election and future primaries.

At the same time, though, we urge officials to be careful not to duly inconvenience large numbers of voters. After all, when there is limited turnout, just a handful of votes can make a difference.

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