Polling place consolidation goes forward

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Citing challenges recruiting election judges as the primary driver, Missoula County Commissioners unanimously agreed Wednesday to eliminate eight area polling places.

Ballot boxes being shuttered include Emma Dickenson, Jefferson, Sunset, Woodman, Washington, DeSmet and Prescott schools, along with the Nine Mile fire station. People who previously cast ballots at the county courthouse will now vote at the Missoula Public Library.

County officials say difficulties recruiting election judges are pushing the need to consolidate. Even though Missoula Clerk and Recorder Vickie Zeier says she’s conducted aggressive outreach in polling places, with political organizations and through local media, bringing in folks to staff ballot boxes remains a tough sell.

“We will continue to plea for election judges,” Zeier said during Wednesday’s commissioner meeting.

Eliminating 13 polling places would have trimmed judges needed from 467 to 281. The revised plan cuts that number down to 318.

All voters affected by the change will receive notices in the mail along with a map to their new polling place, Zeier said. Additional information will be posted on the county’s website. Ballots can also be cast through the mail.

Initially, on Dec. 4, Zeier proposed closing 13 polling places. But after voter advocacy organizations, local politicians and citizens came out in droves voicing opposition—largely based on concern that eliminating polling places would disenfranchise voters, especially those who are young and low-income—she issued an abbreviated proposal two weeks later.

The revised plan met less resistance Wednesday.

“This is a good solid compromise that makes sense to us,” said Gladys Hardin, president of the Missoula League of Women Voters.

Other voter advocates, though, like Montana Women Vote and Forward Montana are still irked, maintaining that a substantial shift in local democratic infrastructure has not been sufficiently vetted before being put in motion.

“We oppose any poll closure under this rushed plan,” said John Bacino from Forward Montana. “People in this country fight and die for the right to vote. Not for bureaucratic efficiency.”

From the other end of the spectrum, conservative Missoula City Council members Renee Mitchell and Dick Haines argued that being prudent with county resources makes sense in the face of waning voter demand.

“What a bunch of malarkey,” Haines said in response to concerns over Zeier’s initial proposal to move the University of Montana's polling place to Paxson School, about a mile away. “We have students that can’t walk five blocks?”

The consolidation will be in effect for the June primary race.

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