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More vote centers coming to Texas

I personally really like the concept of “vote centers”, which is basically Early Voting locations done on Election Day as well. I like them because it means you never have to worry about which polling place you need to go to, which in turn means it’s basically impossible to pull the old-fashioned vote-suppression stunt of directing people to the wrong polling location. So I’m glad to hear that they are considered the wave of the future in Texas.

Tarrant County Elections Administrator Steve Raborn said that Tarrant isn’t prepared to adopt the vote center model for a number of reasons but that many public officials see it as “the wave of the future” because it is believed to increase turnout and lower costs. County commissioners would have to approve such a change.

Critics of electronic voting machines worry that vote centers could be the last nail in the coffin for paper ballots in Texas.

“Anything that pushes more electronics we think is a really bad idea,” said Vickie Karp, national director of the Coalition for Visible Ballots and a leader of Austin-based Vote Rescue.

The vote center model began in 2003 in Colorado and has since spread to other states. Though the results aren’t conclusive, turnout for local elections tends to increase in counties that use vote centers, [Kimball Brace, president of Election Data Services, a Washington, D.C., consulting firm that tracks election equipment use nationwide] said.

[...]

State lawmakers passed a bill this year allowing more counties to try out the model. In August, Collin County commissioners approved a plan to take part in the pilot program. On Nov. 3, 57 vote centers will be operating around the county instead of the usual 129 polling places.

In a vote center model, every Election Day polling place must be able to serve every voter in the county. That makes it difficult to offer paper ballots, as every site would need a supply of every possible ballot form.

That troubles critics of electronic voting machines, who argue that only hand-counted paper ballots give voters the confidence that their votes are being properly counted.

“Voters as consumers are looking at what is easiest, what is fastest, what’s the most convenient and that’s what election officials are looking at,” Karp said. “But none of those criteria are looking at the sanctity of the ballot.”

All due respect to Ms. Karp, but I consider getting rid of pen-and-paper ballots to be a feature, not a bug. I certainly agree that there are a host of issues with electronic voting machines that have not been adequately addressed, and that a lot of people are in denial about, and will continue to be until a real disaster strikes. But paper ballots have their own security concerns, and are much more likely to be simply misread or discounted because the voter’s intent is (supposedly) not clear. Further, the ease, speed, and convenience that she seems to dismiss is the sort of thing that enables people to vote in a timely manner, rather than leave in disgust after waiting in line forever. Being able to handle a larger-than-expected volume is a plus for voting centers. During the 2008 Democratic primary, which is the best example of that situation we may ever have, people had the option of seeking out an early voting location that wasn’t as busy as some of the others; I cast my vote at the Power Center at South Main and S Post Oak and was in and out in ten minutes. That kind of flexibility is a real virtue and shouldn’t be diminished.

By the same token, I don’t want to diminish the value of a paper trail. I continue to believe that requiring a paper printout of every ballot cast on an electronic voting machine is a crucial component of ballot box security, and would serve as a failsafe in the event that an EVM’s memory stick got lost or damaged. It’s just that I believe in paper receipts to electronically-cast ballots, which can and should be used on all of our EVMs, whether at a vote center or a traditional Election Day polling place. I don’t want to see vote centers being cast as somehow being incompatible with the idea of paper ballots, because as I see it this is not at all the case.

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4 Comments

  1. martha says:

    When I first heard about vote centers, I thought they were a great idea, but then I learned that counties would use them to decrease the number of voting locations on Election Day. I’m not sure that is a good thing for folks who are not very mobile. I know from endless hours of blockwalking that many voters, particularly older ones, count on being able to easily get down the street to their usual precinct voting location on Election Day, and that the long lines at early vote locations can be a hindrance to someone actually getting in the car and driving somewhere to vote. For me, personally, it’s not a problem, but I wonder who it excludes.

  2. The future polling place in Texas will likely be a vote center. Preliminary reports however are mixed. One Colorado county (Laramie) has had great success with the concept and most of the positive publicity has come from their experience.

    However, attempt to duplicate the process have had decidedly mixed outcomes. Witness the fiasco in Denver in 06. Most of the failures that I’ve studied were caused by county boards thinking that the vote center, because it reduces the number of polling locations, allows for elections to be held “on the cheap”. Nothing could be further from the truth.

    Laramie county spent huge amounts of time and funds planning and equipping its vote centers. Lubbock and Collin County have not.

    For this reason, a majority of the bi-partisan “Vote Center Site Selection Committee” in Collin County voted to INCREASE the number of polling locations for this year’s trial run of the vote center experiment only to be over ruled by a commissioners court that was focused on budgets, not turnout.

    One important aspect of the upcoming Collin County experiment is that a very comprehensive and scientific study will be commissioned with Rice university to gauge the impact of the vote center model on the turnout of both traditional and non-traditional voters.

    Bill Baumbach
    Member, Collin County Site Selection Committee

  3. Joyce McCloy says:

    Its possible that readers here are not aware of Texas’ problems with electronic voting. Please visit this link for a database of problems, failures, malfunctions etc in Texas voting http://tinyurl.com/texas-problems

    What many journalists and the public do not know is how low the bar has been set for voting vendors. These voting machines are not “ATM” quality! And we voters do not hold “accounts” with which to check our “vote” account, either, due to the secrecy of the ballot. While computers count quickly, they also suffer from “garbage in, garbage out” sydrome, and have exponentially increase risk of error, malfunction and fraud.

    Its shocking but true that the machines sold in just 2006 have technology that is over a decade out of date. In 2004, some jurisidictions were using software with mere 16 bit tech. Some states saw these machines meet a threshold and the vote count flipped to “0″.

    It is also shocking to know that the machines in use in Texas and elsewhere are considered to meet federal standards as long as they do not exceed a 9.2% failure rate in a 15-hour election day.

    So one reason not to push for vote centers is that they would require these same machines to run day after day, increasing the likelihood of problems.

    But lets say that YOU don’t believe the computer scientists or activists like me when I say we need to minimize our exposure on these machines.

    Lets say – that you DO care about the voters, especially the vulnerable segments of the population. Say you think voting should be fair to the elderly sick or poor….Then if so, please read on:

    Vote Centers do not “add” to choices for voters, but instead reduce choices for voters.

    To pay for Vote Centers, sacrifices are made: Which precincts will be eliminated? Who decides? The number of voting locations and voting machines are cut by as much as 66% or more. Neighborhood election day precincts are often eliminated.

    Certain segments of the population have a bigger burden in trying to exercise their right to vote. Vote Centers or Super Precincts don’t serve the voter’s needs or the precise requirements for democratic elections — transparency being one of them. Vote Centers remove places from the neighborhood locations where voters without the means can have easier access.

    With Vote Centers, you will see as many as 10,000 votes concentrated at one location, making it easier to commit fraud on a large scale in one fell swoop. The smaller neighborhood polling places offer a buffer against election fraud by keeping the number of votes in one location down to an average of 3,000 ballots or fewer. Voting machine malfunction or a rogue election worker can affect far fewer votes in a neighborhood precinct than in a consolidated vote center.

    Larimer County is an example of how vote centers can disenfranchise large numbers of people when just one thing goes wrong:

    Rocky Mountain News: Elections Nov. 7,, 2006. Voters at many of the city’s new 55 voting centers have been encountering long lines, computer problems and an inadequate number of computers to check proof
    http://www.rockymountainnews.com/drmn/elections/article/0,2808,DRMN_24736_5124795,00.html

    If the goal is to improve access to voting, then the best solution is to offer a 2 week period of early voting which ceases the week-end before election day, and to continue with neighborhood polling places on election day. This provides the best of both worlds, without creating a barrier to voting for the elderly and poor, and without exposing extremely large numbers of votes to software malfunctions and fraud.
    See http://www.ncvoter.net/votecenters.html

    1. Will Vote Centers be on private property, and if so, a) how will voting machines be secured, and b) will electioneering be allowed?

    2. How will the poor, elderly, or sick or those with transportation issues get to the vote centers? Do you know what a bus ride across town is like, since vote centers end up being across town. It can take a person hours to get across town and back, and then there’s the wait in line.

    3. What is the backup plan in the event of a Larimer County style meltdown?

    I wouldn’t expect these Vote Centers to be very busy during small elections, but in General Elections and especially Presidential (the one more voters pay attention to) alot can go wrong and the lines will be a mess.

    Will your county provide some sort of transportation for voters that won’t take hours out of their day? Often it is the poor who can’t miss any work time, they won’t get reimbursed.

    And when all of your neighborhood polling places are eliminated, who decides where the vote centers will be?

    If the goal is to enfranchise the most voters in the fairest way possible, Vote Centers do not meet the goal.

  4. johnnie jones says:

    I was part of the Lubbock County group that enacted the first vote center experiment in Texas. It was well thought out. Well planned and executed. I really thought it would make voting more accessible and easier.

    However, at the end of the day, votes in the highest-minority precincts dropped six times more than the county average.

    I prepared a detailed report and submitted it to the Secretary of State after the election. All of the negative information contained in my report was omitted in his report to the Legislature.

    I’m not sure what the analysis means, or if the trend continued through the subsequent elections, since I left Lubbock County shortly after this election.

    If you would like the full report, just email me and I’ll be glad to send.

    I don’t mean to be negative about vote centers and am pleased Collin County has decided to do a scientific study of the results. It was a real shame that neither Lubbock County or the Secretary of State would invest the tiny funded that could have done the same for Lubbock. I think we need to be careful to see what the change actually does to minority votes before we decide to enact it statewide.

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