Lawmakers pass bill to expand vote centers

The Indiana General Assembly has passed its first bill of the 2011 legislative session: a proposal to allow any Indiana county to use centralized vote centers instead of neighborhood polling precincts.

Lawmakers put the bill on the fast track so that counties that want to can establish vote centers for the May municipal primary elections. The Senate unanimously approved the proposal, and the House on Monday voted 68-28 to send the bill to Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels.

While some House Democrats joined Republicans in supporting the bill, Democratic Minority Leader Patrick Bauer said the lawmakers' first bill of the session should have dealt with more important issues like creating jobs or protecting education funding.

"It's a terrible precedent to establish," said Bauer, D-South Bend. "It says to the people you care more about your re-election than the people suffering in this state."

Bill supporters said just because the bill happened to be passed first doesn't grant it any significance. Rep. Kathy Richardson, R-Noblesville, said lawmakers have plenty of other bills dealing with jobs and other important topics.

"We have a lot of good things we're working on," she said.

Under vote center systems, counties replace neighborhood precincts with more centralized centers at places like fire departments, senior centers, grocery stores or shopping malls. Some caution that voters without transportation might have problems reaching a voting site if they are spread too far apart, but supporters say voters like the convenience of being able to cast a ballot away from their neighborhood sites.

Tippecanoe, Cass and Wayne counties already use vote centers through a pilot project, and have reported savings because they don't have to staff as many polling sites.

That pilot project expired at the end of 2010, so if lawmakers don't approve the bill those counties would have to go back to local precincts. County clerks say that would cost significant cash, as well as headaches for voters who liked the convenience of being able to vote anywhere in the county.

The bill requires a unanimous vote from the county election board to move to a vote center system and to create details of the switch such as voting locations.

Previous efforts to expand vote centers have gained traction in the Statehouse but ended up tangled up in more contentious election issues. This year's bill simply allows for the expansion of vote centers and does not get caught up with other proposals such as voting by mail.

A 2010 report by the Indiana Fiscal Policy Institute shows all 92 counties could save money by using vote centers. Estimated savings vary depending on the size of the county and number of voters, but the analysis said counties that could benefit most are those with moderate size, growing populations and many registered voters per precinct.

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