BENTONVILLE -- Benton County's move to vote centers in place of traditional polling places has been approved by the secretary of state's office -- the final OK needed to carry out the plan.
The Benton County Election Commission endorsed the plan and obtained Quorum Court approval before sending the plan to Little Rock. With Monday's approval from the state, election officials will proceed with vote centers where any registered voter can cast a ballot on election day rather than being limited to a single polling place.
The 2016 party preferential primary and non-partisan election is March 1. The deadline to register to vote in the election is Feb. 1. Early voting for the election will begin Feb. 16.
Source: Benton County Clerk’s Office
Election officials were pleased with the quick decision on the plan. The county plan was sent to the secretary of state's office in Little Rock twice Monday, with email problems prompting the need for it to be resent. The plan was approved less than two hours after it was resent.
"In a way I am surprised," said John Brown Jr., a member of the county Election Commission. "I thought there'd be some questions about various and sundry things. But I think the election staff in Little Rock believes we have the ability to make this work."
Kim Dennison, election coordinator, said the county will have 46 vote centers open for the March 1 party preferential primary election. The county had 68 polling places for elections in 2014. Easy access for voters is the main reason for switching to vote centers, Dennison said.
"Convenience is the big one," Dennison said. "All of the county's voters will be able to vote at any location they see on election day. There will be no more hurrying to your precinct polling place after work to beat the time the polls close because they can stop at the first one they come to."
Election officials have heard from many voters in the past who questioned why they had to go to one particular polling place when there were others nearby, Dennison said.
The chief difference for election staff will be training poll workers to use new electronic poll books the county is buying to make the vote centers work, Dennison said. Electronic poll books will replace paper books that had to be prepared for past elections. Poll workers will have real-time access to voter registration information that will tell them which ballot a voter needs and also mark that they've cast their ballot, reducing or eliminating the chance of someone voting twice.
Electronic check-in should go faster, reducing wait time for voters, Dennison said.
Benton County has also obtained another 53 electronic voting machines. The machines were used in Garland County, which has been chosen by the state to participate in a pilot program testing new voting machines the state plans to acquire to replace the 10-year-old machines now being used.
Benton County had 261 of the Ivotronic machines for previous elections, Dennison said. The additional machines will allow for the opening of two more early voting locations. That will bring the county up to 11 early voting sites for the March 1 primary.
The popularity of early voting should make the change to vote centers easier, Brown said. Nearly half the county's voters used the early voting period to cast ballots in 2014.
"Early voting has been very popular," Brown said. "One of the things that has made it popular is that you can vote at any location instead of having to go to your regular polling location. If you work in a different city or another part of the county, it's going to be a lot easier than having to drive all the way home to vote."
Jennifer Price, Washington County election coordinator, said that county's Election Commission has approved a vote center plan that will be submitted to the state Wednesday. Washington County had two vote centers open for the Sept. 8 special election in Fayetteville, and their success helped make the decision to switch to vote centers easier, Price said.
"We think for the voters it will be a very positive change," Price said. "You'll be able to go to the polling place you're closest to, wherever you are in the county. We're very excited to offer this to the voters of Washington County."
Kurt Moore of Siloam Springs, a Benton County justice of the peace, works for the Rogers School District. He said he can appreciate the greater convenience of vote centers. It's inevitable that technology will change the way elections are held, he said.
"I think it's the way things are going," Moore said. "At some point, we're probably going to have Internet voting, and the traditional election day will be replaced with an election period that ends on election day. Early voting has been very, very popular, and one of the things that has made it popular is you can vote at any location instead of just the one near your home. If you work in a different city it's going to be a lot easier."
Metro on 11/28/2015