2016 saw more states than ever before use vote centers for early or Election Day voting. In addition to providing multiple locations for voters to cast a ballot, vote centers can have the additional benefit of saving money for election officials. They often require an up-front investment in e-pollbooks to ensure that all locations have real-time access to the voter registration list and can require larger locations with different technological needs, however they can also require fewer pollworkers and result in a smoother voting experience for voters.
In a traditional voting model, most precincts have their own polling location, and in some areas, several precincts may be consolidated into one polling location. Vote centers combine all precincts across a jurisdiction so voters have the flexibility to cast a ballot at one of a number of locations rather than being tied to a single polling place. A voter can cast her ballot near work or school, or at whatever location is most convenient in terms of location and schedule. Vote centers also create administrative efficiencies for election officials by allowing them to use fewer polling locations, hire fewer poll workers, and focus on hiring their highest quality poll workers.
At the urging of the counties who were looking for cost savings, the Wyoming legislature passed legislation permitting the use of vote centers and e-pollbooks in 2015. Two counties – Laramie and Teton – used vote centers for the primary and general election in 2016. Laramie County cut the number of polling locations by more than 40 percent and the number of poll workers from approximately 400 to approximately 150, which at $200 per poll worker per election and $35 per training represents a savings of more than $50,000 in poll worker costs per election, or approximately $100,000 in 2016. Teton County saw a more than 50 percent reduction in polling locations and before the 2016 election projected a savings of $20,000 in temporary staff costs in fiscal year 2017. These kinds of cost savings are not unique to Wyoming. The city of North Las Vegas, Nevada is using 10 vote centers in their 2017 city elections instead of 20 polling locations, and estimates a savings of approximately $55,000.
There are a variety of associated benefits from vote centers that also result in cost savings. First, vote centers make voting simpler for voters since they can go to any location in a jurisdiction, which in turn leads to fewer provisional ballots cast. Unlike the precinct polling location model, voters are less likely to go to the wrong voting location in a vote center model because they can go to any location in their jurisdiction, which is easier to understand than a precinct. The City and County of Denver, Colorado went from 10,777 provisional ballots in November 2012 to 340 in November 2016 after the transition to the “Colorado model,” which offers voters the opportunity to cast a ballot at vote centers or by mail. At a cost of up to $1.67 per provisional ballot, that represents a savings of up to $17,395 in provisional ballot costs alone.
Further, as demonstrated in Laramie and Teton Counties, with fewer voting locations, election officials can draw on a smaller pool of more qualified and reliable poll workers and training can be more in-depth, resulting in poll workers more familiar with state law and election procedures and a smoother voting process with more locations where voters can cast their ballots conveniently.
Vote centers, however, are not a panacea for election officials or for voters. Election officials often must invest in e-pollbooks to make sure that all locations have real-time access to the voter registration list, and finding well-distributed locations large enough and with the capacity to accommodate the technology needs – internet connectivity for e-pollbooks and sufficient power outlets, for example – of a vote center can be challenging. Vote center location selection is critically important, and requires thinking about voter mobility patterns to make sure that there are not several under-utilized locations and one or two with very long lines. In addition, making the transition from a traditional voting model to a vote center model requires an investment in voter education to make sure that voters know and understand their options.
Both the immediate and long-term benefits achieved by moving to a vote center model cannot be ignored. For many counties, vote centers can save money while giving voters more options and still providing them a high-quality voting experience.