story by Ryan Saylor
A plan under consideration by the Sebastian County Election Commission would reduce the number of polling sites in certain parts of the county and save costs, according to Election Coordinator Jerry Huff.
The plan would reduce various polling places with "polling centers," which would allow voters to vote at any one of the centers versus voting at a designated location, which is how elections are currently structured.
Should the county move to polling centers, only certain sections of the county would fall under the new centers. Locations that have been floated include Fort Smith, Greenwood and Lavaca.
In Fort Smith, the number of polling locations would be reduced from 24 polling places to a minimum of four polling centers, likely located within the city's pre-determined wards used for allocating the city's Board of Directors positions. Another option would add up to two additional polling centers, possibly at the former main branch of the Fort Smith Public Library, adjacent to the convention center with another possible location at East Side Baptist Church at the intersection of Massard Road and Dallas Street, according to Election Commission Chairman Lee Webb.
"We're mainly looking at really densely populated areas," Webb said. "We don't think there's anyway you could (do this county-wide), especially in the south part of the county."
In moving to a system, figures supplied by the Election Commission show estimated cost savings of $17,645 for the May 20, 2014, primary election and $18,550 for the Nov. 5, 2014, general election by moving both Fort Smith and Greenwood to polling centers. In all, the savings in both elections would be $36,195.
The savings comes from reducing the number of poll workers. Currently, the 24 polling places in Fort Smith average about six workers each, while Greenwood has three polling places with an average of six workers.
The four proposed Fort Smith polling centers, on the other hand, would be staffed by 13 workers at each location, while the one proposed polling center at the Greenwood Fairgrounds would be staffed by 11 workers. In all, the proposed sites would only employee 63 workers, while the current set up in both cities requires an average of 162 workers.
"It really helps to address the issue of workforce. The biggest problems you have with an election is coming up with enough poll workers and then you have to train them," Huff said.
Training poll workers can be a challenge, he said, as many poll workers are senior citizens who do the position out of duty to their community and country or because they are seeking social interaction. It is not very often that poll workers come into the position with advanced skills, such as computer knowledge needed to run electronic voting stations or submit electronic reports, Huff added.
In addition to saving money in the county budget by not having to pay as many poll workers, Huff also highlighted the cost savings that will be associated with not having to print paper ballots for polling centers.
"The paper ballot, you could not use paper ballots at these polling centers because a paper ballot memory card will only contain ten precints, so you would have to have eleven of these machines at each of these locations, which we don't have. So, you could not use paper ballots. You would have to use electronic machines," Huff said.
"In other words, it's a move toward fully electronic," Webb said.
The question of whether the county would have enough voting machines, Huff said, would be a moot point since so many polling places would close, therefore freeing up electronic machines to be used at the new polling centers.
County Clerk Sharon Brooks said the new system, if approved, would be beneficial to the county's bottom line, the process of counting votes and agreed with Webb's assertion that it would be a step toward going fully electronic across the county.
"Yes, it's a great thing," she said, adding that she hopes to start testing some of the new technology that would be required for polling places later this year.
Asked whether there was concern about voters being disenfranchised by reducing the numbers of polling places and possibly making it more difficult to vote, Webb said the city of Fort Smith already provided transportation for voters needing to vote on election day and would expand the service should the push to polling centers move forward.
"If we see that it won't work in a community, we don't have to do it," Webb added.
No action has been taken on the proposal, though Webb said a public comment period will take place at a later date.