Voting centers

JASPER COUNTY — It appears Jasper County is ready to trade its 29 precinct-based voting locations for a series of voting centers throughout the county.

The Jasper County Election Board, which consists of County Clerk Kara Fishburn as well as Democratic Party Chairman Mike Wheeler and Republican Party Chairman Jeff Phillips, are mulling over a voter center concept designed to make voting in the county more efficient while saving taxpayer money.

The centers would eliminate the need for voters to go to their specific precinct as it is currently laid out over 29 locations and vote at any one of the proposed 10 centers.

Votes can be cast at any of the centers from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. on the election day.

“(The centers) add more flexibility for voters to cast their ballot,” Fishburn told the county commissioners Monday morning.

“Since this is a non-election year, the election board felt it was a good time to explore this idea. Since we are still in the midst of the COVID pandemic, it’s become very evident this is a perfect time to address the vote center concept.”

By moving to centers over precincts, Fishburn said, “Significant cost savings are expected over time on items such as poll worker wages, polling site rentals and voting equipment.”

Each center will house more voting machines — such as six per site — to help alleviate a voter’s wait time to cast a ballot.

The centers will be linked by a secure connection and electronic poll books will be used by poll staff. The books instantly update voter information as they check in, Fishburn said.

E-poll books have been used by workers since 2018.

“Poll workers and voters are used to that check-in procedure and it goes so much more smoothly,” Fishburn said. “With a swipe of your Indiana driver’s license, much like a credit card, your voter information populates (the book).”

The centers would also reduce the number of workers needed to coordinate an election, from approximately 150 to 100. In 2020, it was difficult to find workers who were willing to work during the COVID pandemic, Fishburn said.

“Some polling locations, we were working without a complete election staff, but they were all troopers,” she said. “They dug in and did a great job with added work, pressure and stress, I might add. I’m very proud of the workers who stepped up at the polling locations because they did work during some trying times.

“It’s just more convenient for the voter and poll worker.”

The county will continue to have walk-in hours for absentee voters, which proved popular during the last election.

Voting centers are the wave of the future and have been used in other counties. Forty-eight of the state’s 92 counties have centers in place, and as many as six more counties are in the early stages of reviewing plans.

“I’ve always thought about the idea, and having received numerous emails from my fellow Indiana clerks on how well they work in their respective counties and how they save the county and taxpayers money, your election board has decided to move forward with the idea,” she said.

“Once we go through an election cycle, we’ll probably wonder why we waited so long to adopt this new voting concept. Ultimately, our goal is to make voting easier and more convenient for voters, while also saving money.”

The election board will conduct a 30-day public comment period, with the start date to be announced via the Rensselaer Republican, radio and the clerk office’s Facebook page, Fishburn said. The comment period allows county residents to voice their opinion on the idea of centers over precincts.

“I encourage anyone to please voice your opinions, your questions,” she said. “As your Jasper County election administrator, I’ve always taken great pride in the security and integrity in our elections and ensure every vote counts.”

Fishburn and the election board addressed the commissioners this week to ask they sign a resolution that gives approval for the board go forward with the next step. Fishburn said a study committee of 10 bi-partisan members is scheduled to meet April 29 to discuss plans for voting centers.

A similar resolution must be signed by the county council as well.

The commissioners initially voiced concern of the costs to implement a plan, but did see cost benefits of voting centers.

“It sounds like this will be our only action by the commissioners and the rest is up to the council and maybe the election board at that point,” said commissioner president Kendell Culp.

Meanwhile, Fishburn said the election board is excited to move forward.

“I want to thank everyone who has spent countless hours so far in a bi-partisan manner on this vote plan. You’re helping our local voters exercise their right to vote in a more efficient manner,” she said.

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