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.
Polling places on the block include the County Courthouse, the University of Montana, Emma Dickenson, Franklin, Jefferson, Sunset, Woodman, Washington, DeSmet and Prescott schools, along with Evaro, Nine Mile and Petty Creek fire stations.
Those polling places were selected based on a variety of factors including a limited number of registered voters in the district, another polling place nearby or accessibility limitations, says Missoula County Clerk and Recorder, Vicki Zeier.
For instance, of the 293 registered voters in the Woodman voting district, 168 took advantage of the polling place last November. Meanwhile, five election judges stood by each, of working a 14-hour shift at minimum wage.
Absentee voting nearly doubled between 2006 and 2008, Zeier says. And if the existing proposal to eliminate 13 polling places went forward, the county would save roughly $19,000 per election in addition to a one-time $75,000 expenditure necessary to invest in ballot counting machines that are accessible for people with disabilities.
Some on the Election Advisory Committee, comprised of representatives from state, county and city government and voter advocacy organizations, voiced concern the cutbacks could curb voter participation.
“I do have concerns about closing the University Centers,” said Missoula City Councilman Jason Wiener. “It’s a very big precinct.”
Zeier pointed out that though turnout for the November 2008 election was high at UM, often fewer than a handful of voters show up, especially during school and primary elections. That’s a waste of resources, and when only two people show up to vote, it’s clear how they voted and secrecy is compromised, she said.
City Councilman Ed Childers worried the move would hinder involvement in the democratic process. “When you have polling places, in a lot of ways, more is better,” he said.
Zeier pointed out that eliminating polling places is not something she wants to do, and the current proposal isn’t set in stone. But said resourcefulness is necessary in the face of dwindling demand.
County Commissioners will hold a public meeting and further evaluate specifics on Dec. 16.