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BENTONVILLE -- Election officials are looking at major changes in voting if Benton County can acquire the necessary technology and equipment.

Russ Anzalone, chairman of the Election Commission, said the county could transition from voters casting ballots at local precincts to being able to use vote centers that can handle voters from any part of the county.

Vote centers

The Arkansas Secretary of State’s Office has established guidelines for counties looking to establish vote centers. The information can be found by going to the secretary of state’s website at www.sos.arkansas.gov and searching for vote centers.

Source: Staff report

"I see it in the future," Anzalone said. "There are several what-ifs we would have to iron out before we do this. But once we do we'll be able to reduce the number of polling sites. We'll be able to reduce the number of poll workers needed. It will reduce the cost of elections for the county. There are a whole lot of positives."

The use of vote centers was made possible in Arkansas by Act 1389 of 2013. The act was sponsored in the state House of Representatives by then-Rep. Mary L. Slinkard of Gravette. Slinkard, who was appointed to serve out the term of Steve Curry after he resigned from the Quorum Court, said she was impressed with how vote centers operated in other states.

"Other states and other communities have done this and it's been very successful," she said. "We got the bill passed in Little Rock, and it is up to the counties whether they want to do this."

Arkansas' counties are on hold while the state finalizes its decision on a new generation of electronic voting machines. Once that's done, Benton County ought to move to the use of vote centers, Slinkard said.

"I feel like we've got to pursue this," she said.

According to information from the Secretary of State's Office, counties can choose to establish vote centers that would replace the traditional voting precincts on election day. Early voting will remain a separate function of the county clerks and election commissions. In the vote center, electronic poll books will be used to verify any person's voter registration information, replacing the precinct-specific paper poll books now widely used. Vote centers will offer electronic voting only, with the machines holding every ballot style in use by the county.

Kim Dennison, Benton County's election coordinator, said paper ballots still will be available during early voting periods of each election, but election day voting will be all electronic.

"The electronic poll books will replace the paper books that are printed and kept at the poll sites now," Dennison said. "They will have a live database that will keep people from voting twice and allow people to vote at any of the vote centers once we get them. It will be just like early voting is now."

Washington County used vote centers in a limited fashion in the Sept. 8 special election in Fayetteville and in the September school elections, according to Jennifer Price, the county's election coordinator. The test was successful, Price said.

"We didn't consolidate any polling places," Price said. "Because of the nature of the special election we didn't want to start out with something new and have people confused. We thought it was just prudent to open up all 17 polling places. What we found was that all 17 polling places had voters who used the vote centers. Out of a little more than 10,000 votes, about 21 percent were cast at polling places that were not their normal polling places."

Price said Washington County has relied heavily on paper ballots in the past, with paper ballots accounting for about 65 percent of the votes cast in a "normal" election. In the special election the use of electronic voting machines went smoothly.

"We ended up with only 32 paper ballots from voters who refused to vote on the touch screens," Price said.

Price hopes to continue working toward vote centers next year, although it will be difficult to do so for the March primary election or the November general election because of delays in state funding for new equipment.

"We don't anticipate the state having funding for the March primary," she said. "We're dependent on another entity, we're dependent on the state, in getting the money for you. We're going to plan and hope for the general election."

Dennison said Benton County is trying to move toward vote centers, but how quickly depends on the support of the Quorum Court. She said the Election Commission has some money to buy electronic poll books, which are a prerequisite, but not enough to buy all that will be needed. But, she said, if the county buys that equipment, it will have more state funding available for new voting machines once they are approved and funded.

"The state gives each county a set amount of money," she said "If we've already bought the electronic poll books we'll have more of that money to buy the new voting machines we'll need."

Dennison, who observed the vote center operation during the Fayetteville election in person, said the new machines are the key to Benton County moving forward.

"I would love to make it happen now, but I cannot make it work with the equipment I have now," she said. "With the new equipment the state is planning to buy we will have plenty of machines to do that if the Quorum Court will back us. I have to have their permission, the state law says so. They have to pass an ordinance."

NW News on 10/11/2015

Print Headline: County election officials want vote centers

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