As more voters use absentee ballots, election judges prove tougher to find and ballot-counting technology becomes increasingly expensive, Missoula County is proposing to eliminate 13 polling places.
"I'm trying not to do it so drastically that people lynch me," said Missoula County's Clerk and Recorder Vicki Zeier at a recent meeting, acutely aware that her proposal will raise some hackles.
Polling places on the block include the County Courthouse; the University of Montana; Emma Dickenson, Franklin, Jefferson, Sunset, Woodman, Washington, DeSmet and Prescott schools; as well as Evaro, Nine Mile and Petty Creek fire stations. Zeier said the locations were selected based on a variety of factors, including a limited number of registered voters in the district, another polling place nearby or accessibility challenges.
A primary instigator to the change is absentee voting, which nearly doubled in Missoula County between 2006 and 2008. Zeier said if the existing proposal went forward, the county would save roughly $19,000 per election, and avoid a one-time $75,000 expenditure necessary to invest in new ballot counting machines.
But some on the Election Advisory Committee voiced concern the cuts could curb voter participation.
"When you have polling places, in a lot of ways, more is better," said City Councilman Ed Childers.
John Bacino from voter advocacy group Forward Montana also expressed several concerns. Specifically, the plan is moving too fast, he said.
"There's going to be one day for public comment and that one day just happens to be in the middle of finals week," he argued.
Bacino added the polling places slated for elimination are largely in lower income and student-occupied districts. He feared the move might disenfranchise young and poor voters.
But Zeier maintained the proposal is necessary in the face of dwindling demand. Although turnout for the November 2008 election was high, Zeier said often fewer than a handful of voters show up at the polling places, especially during school and primary elections. In those cases, it's not just a resource issue—voter secrecy is compromised, too.
County commissioners will hear public comments on the issue Dec. 16. Any changes made will begin during the June 2010 primary elections.