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Ohio Counties Close Polling Places to Save Funds, Adapt to Changing Voter Habits

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[Image courtesy of topgearhobbies]

A recent story in the Columbus Dispatch addresses an issue that you can expect to see all over the country in the coming years - polling place closures:

The head of the Licking County Board of Elections knows she's in for a bumpy November after nearly half of the county's voting locations were eliminated.

"People are going to be upset, and I understand that," said Director Sue Penick. "But we're playing with their money and trying to ultimately be fiscally responsible with it. Hopefully, we've done that."

Most central Ohio counties have streamlined their precincts in recent years, and Licking County became the latest by announcing on Tuesday that it is eliminating 30 precincts and more than 20 polling locations. The move is expected to save about $20,000.

Licking County will go from 125 precincts to 95, and consolidate 47 voting locations into 24 or 26 for the November election. The impetus, besides cost-cutting, was efficiency, Penick said. Seven precincts that served villages with fewer than 200 voters were consolidated into locations that now will serve a village/township split.

Penick said the streamlining will affect between 65,000 and 70,000 voters, or more than 60 percent of those registered. Those affected will be notified of the changes by mail in the coming weeks.

The changes not only reflect fiscal pressures but also changes in the way voters cast their ballots:

Changes in election law in the past five to 10 years have allowed counties to cut costs without, in theory, cutting efficiency.

More than 30 percent of Ohio voters submitted absentee ballots, for example, in November's general election.

"While we all work for the secretary of state, we have a huge commitment to the county that funds us," said Susan Bloom, director of the Fairfield County Board of Elections.

Fairfield County eliminated 20 precincts early last year, and Bloom said she'll look at cutting or consolidating again after November's election.

Some changes are associated with space considerations:

Franklin County will cut 12 polling locations through consolidation for the upcoming election, forcing about 28,000 voters to new sites. Some private owners of previous polling locations no longer wanted to host voting, while other sites needed repairs to become compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, said spokesman Ben Piscitelli.

Thompson Recreation Center, on Dennison Ave., where nearly 5,900 voters were registered for the 2012 general election, is being remodeled.

In most counties, these closures aren't straight cuts, but rather a re-allocation of resources - but the county is still expecting an adjustment period:

Penick said the cost-cutting in Licking County will help pay for updated technology, including last year's purchase of 105 electronic poll books and this year's accompanying drivers-license scanners, which will help speed up the voting process.

"We'll have some issues this first time, I know that," Penick said. "That's why we did it in an off-year election. But I truly believe that, ultimately, this will cut voting time, not add to it."

You can expect lots of stories like this in the foreseeable future as counties balance their commitment to voters with legal changes and fiscal pressures. It will be interesting to see how it works out in Ohio - and elsewhere.

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