BENTONVILLE -- Northwest Arkansas election officials are preparing for the future after a busy election season in 2016.
"We are looking forward to having some breathing room," Jennifer Price, election coordinator for Washington County, said of 2017." It gives us a chance to kind of take a step back and look at what we've done. We always try to use the off year as a chance to go back and see what we might do better. There's just a small window of time for us to do that."
Price said she isn't aware of any elections pending for 2017 other than annual school elections. She said 2016 saw many changes, with new voting equipment, shifting to the use of voter centers rather than voting by precinct and a large increase in the use of early voting. Washington County will study the vote center turnout, looking at the number of votes cast and voting patterns at the different vote centers to see if new or additional locations are needed and if the numbers of voting machines allocated to the centers meet the needs of the voters, Price said.
Becky Lewallen, Washington County clerk, said there were 82,607 votes cast in the Nov. 8 general election. Officials said early indications put the early voting turnout at about 58 percent, a record share of the vote for the early voting effort. Lewallen wants to see that grow.
"We always like to encourage early voting, she said. "It takes the lines down on election day. They have two weeks so it also takes down the stress of voting."
In Benton County, 97,738 votes were cast in the Nov. 8 general election, according to Tena O'Brien, Benton County clerk. Early indications show about 66,721 votes were cast during early voting, O'Brien said.
Kim Dennison, Benton County election coordinator, said she's focused on 2017, since election workers and voters are dealing with older voting machines the county hopes to replace next year. The Election Commission has determined the location used to house the offices and voting equipment is too small to handle the new machines the state has decided to use, Dennison said. New office space will have to be found once Benton County is approved for the machines.
"We've been given the task of finding a new location that will give us more room," Dennison said. "Russ Anzalone, (Election Commission chairman) took a tape measure and did rough measurements of the new machines and our offices here. It would take all of the space we use for meetings and Election Commission work to store the new machines, without any space to even walk through the room."
Anzalone and Dennison said the space issue may be the biggest concern in 2017 as no elections are set other than annual school elections. Dennison has heard of two or three possible special elections, but none are definite. Special elections limited to a city or school district aren't the same challenge as elections with multiple local, state and federal races.
"Those are nothing to compare with a presidential election," Dennison said. "Each one of them we would be looking at a single polling place unless it's one of the larger cities or school districts. Even then we would have four or five polling locations compared to 44. Even a county special election we might have half as many polling locations. It would still be easier."
Benton County hopes to get approval from the state and money to purchase new voting machines, Anzalone said. The county had 489 older machines for the Nov. 8 election, and 16 of those since have developed mechanical problems, Dennison said. Half of the voting machines no longer are covered by maintenance contracts, Dennison said. The number of voting machines with mechanical problems is a sign of trouble, Anzalone said.
"It isn't a big number, but we know they are starting to die," he said. "We're looking at smaller elections this next year, and it would be easier for us to get the new machines in and get everyone trained on them. I would hate to have to do that on a major election."
The switch to new machines is going to happen eventually because the software used in the older machines is no longer supported, said Anzalone, who hopes to make the transition as smooth at possible.
"I think it would have to happen," he said. "To me, the sooner the better so we have the opportunity to work with the new machines."
NW News on 12/26/2016