With Election Day fast approaching, some get-out-the-vote advocates are criticizing Missoula County's decision to move voter registration from the downtown courthouse to a new location at the fairgrounds.
"I think there's a huge accessibility issue," says John Bacino of Forward Montana, a nonprofit aimed at increasing voter participation. "The location at the fairgrounds is absolutely horrid."
The county opened its Elections Center in the Fine Arts Building at the fairgrounds last month. Residents looking to register before Nov. 3 must do so at the new location, and Bacino claims the public received relatively little notice.
"It seems like it was does done rather rashly and opaquely," Bacino says. "You're required to do more noticing if you put a deck on your house."
Bacino adds that the courthouse location made registration simple for voters because it's easily accessible for pedestrians and bikers, as well as for those riding the bus; the Mountain Line Transfer Center sits directly across the street. In contrast, the fairgrounds is located at one of Missoula's busiest intersections, making it tough for pedestrians and bikers.
But Missoula County Elections Administrator Vickie Zeier says those living on the south side may actually prefer the new digs, which feature tons of parking and extra space for election officials to serve the public. Last year, Zeier's office registered 1,100 people on Election Day, and the courthouse's constraints were clear.
"They waited on the stairwells," she says. "They waited outside."
Faced with a space crunch, the county asked voters to approve a bond in 2008 that would have financed a new Elections Center. The bond failed, though, and administrators scrambled to find a new spot.
Though state law doesn't require advance notice before changing a voter registration location, Zeier says the county gave the heads up as soon as it settled on the fairgrounds. She adds that election workers will continue spreading the word in advance of next year's federal election—likely a busier time than this year's local races. Zeier also says she hopes to offer bus service from downtown directly to the fairgrounds in 2010.
"I understand totally that we need to make this convenient and accessible to everyone," she says, "and we're trying to do that."