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Three New Considerations for Early Voting: Location, Location, Location

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[Image courtesy of sipofspokane]

A story in this morning's Daily News Journal looks at low voter turnout at a new early voting location in West Murfreesboro, TN. The low participation rate at Blackman Elementary (84 ballots in 13 days) will result in an effective cost of nearly $33 per voter and is leading the Rutherford County elections office to re-examine its siting choice - especially since the county's other three locations had 477, 731 and 777 voters participate.

Here's what the city manager and the election office had to say:

"The city added the Blackman early voting location due to the substantial growth of the city west of the interstate (I-24)," Lyons said Monday. "This was done for the convenience of the growing number of residents in that part of our community. The city reviews early voting data, including times of day and locations, for subsequent elections. The low turnout at this location will be looked at closely for the 2014 elections to see if another location might be more effective. In addition to welcoming input from our voting public, the city will also seek the ideas and input from the Rutherford County Election Commission."

Election Commissioner Johnny Taylor said the low turn out at Blackman Elementary School needs to be examined.

The polling locations are based on population density, he said.

"It's not an exact science," Taylor said.

Murfreesboro's experience with early voting isn't necessarily unique. As more and more jurisdictions expand balloting outside the polling place, the question they face is no longer "should we have early voting?" - nor is it "when should we have early voting?" given that state laws tend to dictate the dates and times voters may cast their ballots.

However, localities like Murfreesboro do have a role in siting their voting locations. In doing so, they face different challenges than are involved with traditional polling locations, where proximity to voters' residences tends to be the dominant factor. With early voting, which usually allows a voter to cast a ballot anywhere in her home jurisdiction, the notion of "convenience" expands to include proximity to work, shopping, public transportation, family schools/activities, etc.

As Murfreesboro has discovered, getting these choices right isn't just about convenience for the voter - it's also about using public resources effectively. Given the high fixed cost of establishing early voting locations (costs which are very well-documented in the article) a poor choice of location can result in the kind of high-per voter cost that is the inevitable mathematical result of low turnout.

Doing this analysis isn't necessarily simple, but it can be straightforward; as more and more local governments rely on geographic information systems (GIS) to manage roads, property and public assets they can use these same tools to inform their election siting decisions. For example, Maricopa County, AZ has used GIS to investigate concerns about election locations - and has even discovered that some some voters drive right by "their" polling place in favor of another. This knowledge helps Maricopa respond to complaints and concerns and perhaps to pick a better place next time.

Rutherford's Taylor is right; siting anything is never an "exact science". However, given the high cost of getting siting decisions wrong it may make sense to use a little more science in choosing polling places for voters before (and during) Election Day.

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